By now, most of us have heard and read numerous accounts detailing the purported rape of an incapacitated 16-year old girl by several members of the high school football team in Steubenville, Ohio and the alleged sexual assaults of two different women, one whom committed suicide ten days later, by members of the Notre Dame Football team. Media outlets have recently been flooded with these and other stories of rape and sexual assault; it’s making headlines practically every day and yet, each time we find ourselves not only appalled, but shocked. But with another woman being raped in the United States every 1.3 minutes, should we still be this surprised? In reality, for every survivor of such violence that comes forward and makes it into the media, many more remain silent. Given the immediate disbelief and blame that those who do come forward face both within both their own personal communities and the world at large—given the clear institutional and societal tolerance of sexual violence that exists in our country—it’s no wonder that so many remain silent.
These stories have already begun to fade in most people’s memories as new and more sensational headlines dominate the media. We’ve been left with narratives framed in a way that lends readers and viewers to question the validity of the victims’ assertions. Accusations that were originally ignored or denied by those in leadership positions whose job it was to protect and bring justice to these survivors. While we may be tempted to believe that this tendency to victim-blame, while tragic for the individual experiencing the blame, doesn’t have any direct effect on us or our communities, staff at the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center insist that these media stories have extremely detrimental effects on the survivors of sexual assault and abuse—and there are many—who read them.
Adam Robinson, ZCenter’s Assistant Executive Director, explains that “when cases like these become public, the way in which they are discussed and the public’s response to them has a significant impact on survivors of other sexual violence crimes. When the public discourse about these crimes includes statements—as they have in these instances—such as, ‘She brought it on herself’ or ‘She shouldn’t have gotten so drunk’, then the implication is that survivor is at fault for the crime committed by other(s). This culture of victim-blaming impacts our community in three important areas. First, in this culture it makes the prospect of choosing to disclose abuse a more risky and difficult choice for survivors to make. Second, it contributes to a false sense that these crimes are over reported, thus setting people up to doubt or ignore disclosures if and when they are made. Third, this culture of victim-blaming allows perpetrators to gain additional power and room to manipulate, threaten, and coerce their victims.”
Similarly, Rosa Figueroa, Intake Manager at ZCenter, states that, “the first thing that comes to mind [when I read stories like this] is re-victimization. Those stories can reinforce the survivor’s feelings of shame, guilt, and feelings of being powerless. It continues to reinforce the silence that we [as counselors] encourage survivors to break. What would be the purpose of them speaking out if no one is going to believe, or worse, place blame on survivors?” Figueroa goes on to reiterate Robinson’s chilling, yet crucial, truth that by placing blame on survivors we “ultimately provide a safeguard for perpetrators to continue abusing. If no one believes, or everyone blames, then perpetrators can continue to abuse generation after generation.”
Robinson goes on to stress the importance of working together “as a community – actively and passively – to create and maintain the social environment that we live in. Our collective efforts either help to create an environment that makes it easier for these survivors to come forward to disclose their trauma and seek support, or our efforts make it more difficult. It is important that we all acknowledge and understand that these crimes do happen, and that they happen frequently. In fact, 1 in 4 women will survive an attempted or completed rape by the time she finishes college.”
“Sexual assault and sexual abuse are crimes to be sure. They are crimes about power and control. As a society, it is up to all of us to make sure that we work together to maintain an environment that is open and supportive to survivors so that they feel empowered enough to openly disclose abuse and ask for help when they need to.”
In addition to creating an environment that’s supportive of survivors, it’s essential that we, as a community, come together to create a culture where young men not only know not to commit these crimes, but feel comfortable and confident in intervening in unhealthy or dangerous situations. Wendy Ivy, Director of Outreach & Community Services at ZCenter, insists that in many ways “it still comes down to gender roles, power and control, and image” for both the men who commit these crimes and those who do not intervene as bystanders.
From a very young age, boys are learning “to be powerful and aggressive, to expect to get what you want, to not feel [or empathize with women]. These men still see women as the lesser sex, the weaker sex; a sex they are entitled to possess. Media plays that up as well by informing men how they are supposed to be. It’s so engrained that they can’t see [masculinity in] any other way.” Ivy also stresses the importance of young men and boys needing more “role models that emulate the behavior we want them to have.” In most cases, they “haven’t witnessed that enough—or at all—in the mentors/leaders in their lives.”
Ivy goes on to explain that part of the problem also lays with the way girls and women are socialized: “media does a great job at lowering the intellect, power and strength of women while increasing their vulnerability. They too play into those inaccurate roles by being who they think they should be. If women and girls blame themselves and each other for a rape, why wouldn’t men and boys?”
So if both men and women are inundated with messaging that helps create a culture where rape is accepted and victims blamed, where do we go from here? Ivy wants more “men in the work. Men need to hold each other accountable to speak out against sexual violence.” Additionally, we need to get out of the “mindset that ‘this doesn’t involve me.’ If it didn’t happen to me I don’t want to hear about it, know about it. We need to get everyone to understand that sexual violence will come back to you or your community in some way. The child down the street that’s being abused beats up your kid on the playground. The sister-in-law that was abused as a child now uses substances [to cope with that abuse] and disrupts every family function and no one knows why. It affects everyone.”
Despite the sensationalism of the headlines, what happened in Steubenville and at Notre Dame are not the exceptions; they are, unfortunately, the norm. Victims of sexual assault continuously have to battle cultural and institutional barriers to justice and healing. It’s time that we send a clear message to leaders of all stripes that the time for apathy, tolerance, and denial are over. It’s time to start creating awareness and supporting survivors. It’s time for action.