April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. According to the National Violence Against Women Survey, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in the United States has experienced rape, or a rape attempt. Sexual violence doesn’t have a single apparent cause; the probability lies between the risk factor that increases the potential of sexual violence and the protective factor, which reduces its likelihood. Unfortunately, when sexual violence occurs, the immediate response from the public is to analyze the victim’s actions.
Even focusing too much on the person committing the crime fails to address the problem of sexual violence on a societal level. Norms can and do contribute to the problem of sexual violence. One of the most egregious is the tolerance of aggression and attribution of blame to the victim.
That the past month has exposed gross instances of victim blame is sadly not surprising, but what is surprising is the origin of the blame. In February, a judge in the Canadian province of Manitoba decided against jailing a convicted rapist because he felt the victim had indicated “sex was in the air” with her wardrobe and her flirting the night the attack happened.
Prosecution was looking for at least three years behind bars, but Kenneth Rhodes instead was handed a two-year conditional sentence with a curfew that allows him to remain free. Justice Robert Dewar suggested Rhodes was just a “clumsy Don Juan” who misunderstood what the victim wanted when he forced her to have sex with him along a dark highway. The girl had met Rhodes in “inviting circumstances,” Dewar noted, adding that she was wearing a tube top with no bra, high heels and a lot of makeup.
“This is a case of misunderstood signals and inconsiderate behavior,” said the judge.
This judge is a man who upholds laws put in place to protect citizens. He is referring to the rape of a woman as “inconsiderate behavior.” Consent, he is implying, depends on the context. By this is he not basically saying that anyone who goes out on a date is consenting to sex with the other party? They accepted the date, right? They showed up all dolled up, in a little black dress and stilettos. They flirted. They smiled and kissed. Obviously the person they’re with is entitled to have sex with them at will.
Wrong. Date rape exists. As does spousal rape, for that matter, because even marriage does not imply consent. When did this become unclear?
Even more recently, the New York Times, a celebrated national publication reported on the vicious gang assault of an 11-year-old girl with a slant that can only be described as “as victim-blaming as humanly possible.”
The girl was invited by a boy she knew into a trailer, where she threatened with violence and raped by some 18 boys and men (their ages ranged from middle-schoolers to a 27-year-old). The assault was filmed on phones and later spread, which is how it came to light.
Instead of reporting the events, the author of the feature, James C. McKinley Jr. fills the piece with factors that must have resulted in this gruesome act: “Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”
Again, consent is implied by what she wears and where she goes. Never mind that a minor is incapable of consenting to any sexual act. Consent is there. She dressed like a 20-something. Thus, she asked for it.
As if that were not sufficiently infuriating, the Times includes a selection of other quotes that continue in this pattern. A notable example: “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.” These boys will?! Where is the victim here?
McKinley succeeded in something: exposing how far that community needs to go in terms of understanding sexual assault. Of course, by running McKinley’s piece, the New York Times has exposed themselves in equal measure. To end sexual violence, we as a community need to stop being permissive, quit looking for reasons that led perpetrators to these acts, begin to set an example and begin to question what societal norms are enforcing violent sexual behavior. The media plays a great role in public perception in everything including the allocation of blame. When the media fails to police its commentary, they do the whole of society as gross a disservice as that which a judge commits when he lets a rapist go free with what amounts to a slap on the wrist and the worthless demand that he send his victim an apology letter.
The journalism doesn’t have to be as reckless as that in the New York Times. Following the gang sexual assault of reporter Lara Logan in Cairo, Ward Harkay, a senior editor at the Village Voice, in an article meant to draw attention to accuracy in reporting, inadvertently created a scale of horror, claiming sexual assault is “almost as bad, but still not as bad as rape.”
There is a reason why surveys discussing sexual assault talk about the statistics of rape and attempted rape. The psychological violence and resulting damage of assault does not require an actual rape. Creating a scale of evils is not helpful in discussing the problem of assault.
But this is not a story about a bad judge, a reckless journalist and an insensitive editor. These three cases reflect the society in which we live, one that inadvertently enforces these behaviors by blaming victims when violations occur, effectively absolving perpetrators.
What we want you to do is for Sexual Assault Awareness Month is to start listening. Listen to how people describe situations of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Where is the blame? Question the impulse to blame the victim, in yourself and in others. The only way to shift a norm is to start from within.
Photo in the header by zelnunes. Header also features lyrics from the song “Me and a Gun” by Tori Amos.