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The Court of Public Opinion Is No Place for Survivors of Sexual Assault

By Amber Versola
Opinion | August 11, 2011

SHAWNEE, Kan. - The modern day peanut gallery has found its' home in the comments section of online media. Common guidance is to avoid the unsolicited commentary, and the cruelty that can come with it.

While I understand such advice, I don't generally follow it.

Sometimes, I wish I would.

I was quite irritated by the commentary that followed a recent article about the civil suit brought against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF Director and alleged attacker of a NYC hotel maid.

The half thought out assertions of a mostly anonymous audience incited my frustrations because I believe they echoed a widespread, long held belief of society. Scrolling through the first page of comments, I was reminded that the general public not only allows a victim blaming mentality to pervade our culture; but that we also seem to believe that the rich and powerful are incapable of assaulting women.

Both notions anger me.

The only person we can blame for rape is the rapist. If we want survivors of such crimes to come forward and the rapists to face consequences, we have to stop insinuating otherwise.

Rape does not discriminate. It doesn't matter if a person is poor or wealthy, 5 years old or 85, a Chi Omega pledge or a soccer star, anorexic or obese, gay or straight, an atheist or a nun, male or female, black or white - no one is immune to sexual assault.

If we aren't pointing to physical characteristics, we are asking what a woman did to make herself vulnerable to the crime. Things like wearing a little black dress, consuming alcohol, and walking alone in a parking garage all serve as evidence that she wasn't using common sense. If a woman doesn't scream loud enough - or even at all, goes jogging at night, or said yes several times before (and perhaps even after) she said no . . .her story may have been fabricated.

This kind of perverse rationale isn't isolated to the one incident between Mr. Strauss-Kahn and his alleged victim. Throughout history, these kinds of remarks have been used to shame many survivors of sexual assault into silence - and to push prosecutors away from action.

The reactions to this alleged crime demonstrate our refusal to acknowledge the plausibility of another human beings' nightmare when that person doesn't fit our mold of what an "innocent" rape victim looks like. It exemplifies our desire to look the other way when the accused is someone we want to respect. At the very least, it goes to show what we value in this country - and who we don't.

rape-protest-sign.jpgDon't get me wrong, I understand the importance of proving guilt. Innocent until proven guilty is one factor that separates the civilized from uncivilized societies.

What I don't agree with is how we force the accuser to prove not only her attackers guilt, but also her own innocence. I am particularly perturbed that we re-victimize survivors of sex crimes in a way that we would never fathom doing to victims of other personal offenses.

Often, we poison the justice system with our preconceived notions of a victims' guilt long before her attacker ever steps foot into a courtroom. This is a phenomenon that tends to be directly related to how we perceive the character of the assailant. The more famous or wealthy the alleged perpetrator of the abuse - the more likely we are to portray the victim as a gold digger, media hound, or as a willing participant simply burned by unrequited love for her attacker. In the court of public opinion, many people have decided that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was innocent of attacking an immigrant hotel maid, Ben Roethlisberger was incapable of raping a college co-ed, Kobe Bryant wouldn't dare rape a (former) fan, and the idea of Julian Assange raping a woman seemed beyond ludicrous.

rape-victim-accused-protest.jpgIs it really that unreasonable for us to think that a woman would decline the sexual advances of these prominent men?

Before the public even fathomed the possibility that these men could be guilty, people eagerly discredited the reported victims. We publicly dissected what the women wore, their sexual histories, financial situations, medical histories, and past brushes with the courts. Yet, we listened intently while past partners and current acquaintances of the men fed us with glorified character references. Some of us provided a more aggressive defense for the accused then did their paid attorneys. Ironically, we shake our heads when the accused women are reluctant to press forward with their allegations. When they refuse to co-operate with investigators, we celebrate it as proof of innocence for our beloved.

Very few of us acknowledge the possibility that victims often retreat because they don't want to continue to shoulder the pain and humiliation that comes with surviving rape in the court of public opinion.

Based on 2009 reportings, the Kansas Bureau of Investigations stated that a person in our state was raped every 7 hours and 48 minutes. That same year, the US Department of Justice estimated that only 55% of rapes were reported. I can only guess some of the reasons that the other 45 percent stayed silent.

For many rape victims, the hardest part of recovery isn't surviving the actual crime - it's living with the aftermath. That aftermath is even more difficult when the peanut gallery migrates from the comments section of their online paper to the produce aisle at the supermarket, or the cubicle 5 feet away at work.

Regardless of where the message is coming from, it must change. No one asks to be raped.


Amen, Amber. When people learn to think of rape as a crime of power rather than sex, they will realize that rape has nothing to do with what a victim wears or how she behaves. Men can also be rape victims and they certainly aren't "asking for it." Rape victims can be somebody's grandmother, mother, sister, friend, or neighbor, even sons and brothers. It's not as if rape occurs in a vacuum. Victims have families and those who love them.

I think it's a good sign that the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center got a grant for more than $99,000 from the Kansas AG's office. It's one of the few decent actions to come out of the Brownback administration in that the grant shows concern for the victims of rape.

Thank you for writing this. The comments section in the online newspapers is one of the most insidious pieces of trash ever perpetrated by journalists eager to keep their readership. At least, the poison gets out there for everyone to see. I don't know if that's enough compensation for the amount of poison that seeps in the culture, though.

I have so much respect for Amber. She is a tireless volunteer, advocate and organizer - and very good writer.

"they will realize that rape has nothing to do with what a victim wears or how she behaves. " ???

What is between our legs, both male and female, seems to be far more powerful than what is between our ears!

Diane, men and women are both sexually stimulated by images! Not controling those impulses is a big problem. Willfully displaying those images is also a big problem. However, the rapist is still guilty of exercising superior physical, or even emotional domination, when they force themselves onto unwilling partners. They are guilty of taking what isn't theirs for taking and should be punished.

A good analogy would be: If you don't want your grandchildren eating candy before dinner, don't put it on the table to tempt them.

Amber, I agree with you, the cards are stacked against the victim, before trial ever begins. That does not relieve potential victims of their responsibility to limit their exposure to the crime. Neither does it justify acquiting the perpetrator by blaming the victim for poor judgment. If you leave your keys in the car and it is stolen, the thief is still guilty of theft.

Deciding guilt or innocence on the basis of either Strauss-Kahn's or the hotel maid's past history is not justice. Neither is it justice to decide on the basis of popular opinion in the boy's locker room or the girl's fashion show.

Most sexual assault (including all forms of rape) has little to nothing to do with sexual attractiveness of the victim. This is not merely a more powerful animal overcoming a less powerful animal and deriving sexual pleasure from a sexual act.

We must view this for what it is - assault. Most rape victims are harmed - hit, cut, torn, twisted, punched, kicked, slapped, spit on, dragged, or slammed against walls, furniture or floors. Much of this violence and hostility occurs before, during and after the so-called "sex act." The "sex act" is not the main feature of the event. The assault is.

Ken, I respectfully disagree with your candy metaphor. A woman's attractiveness cannot be likened to putting candy on the table before dinner. A woman is not candy. Not ever. Not ever should she be viewed as a consumable item that may be consumed by any hungry strangers, at will, with impunity. No. And, never, not before dinner or after dinner, is it acceptable to commit violence against her body.

We should eliminate from our thinking that her attractiveness has something to do with her being assaulted - it's rarely the factor that motivates a rapist to rape. No, rape is something much different and has nothing to do with sexual attraction, as we know it.

Rape is not a sex act, per se. It is an act of power for power sake, an act of domination, torture or cruelty.

This is why the language of sexual assault must change so that people can begin to see it for what it really is - ASSAULT. The fact that these sinister people (people who rape) are able to derive sexual pleasure from humiliating women or listening to them beg their perpetrators to stop assaulting them, is simply against nature. It is not natural. We do not see this even in the animal world. Male dogs will not copulate until the female dog allows it. The goal there is procreation - not violence, humiliation and degradation of another being.

Rape has nothing to do with the victim's prior sexual activities, her clothes or her appearance. It has everything to do with the rapist, not the one raped.

Pam, there is a big difference between violent battery rape and everyday non consensual sex! It is still rape, however. I'm no expert in the field, but I'd guess there are far more rapes without the extreme power for power's sake. Date rape and even spousal rape is sex that is not consensual. No matter, either way it is demeaning to the non consenting partner and the violator should be called to account.

And, I'll still say, if you don't want sex don't be showing up to the party exposing your 'candy'. (provocative attire) And if you don't want robbed, beaten, or raped don't go walking alone in secluded areas. If you don't want your car stolen, remove the key from the ignition and lock the doors. The person who violates you is guilty, but you have a responsibility to take precaution and not expose yourself or your property to the danger.

Incidentally, animal sexual behaviour is not a part of the equation in human rape! I've handled livestock, dogs, cats, roosters, -you name it- and the male animal will copulate if he can get the female where she can't get away.

In the civilized human world, non consensual sex is rape, whether violence is involved or not. The assaulted person, male or female, deserves respect when they attempt to get justice for their mistreatment. Amber, Pam, Diane, and all you other women who are concerned about equity and justice, - I'm on your side! The rapist is guilty, regardless of extenuating circumstances.

Ken--I'm generally impressed by your grasp of the issues we deal with on KFP. However, I'm not sure you really understand the crime of rape. As much as I hate to reveal this in cyberspace, I think you need to know this. I was sexually molested by an older relative from the time I was an infant until I was old enough to realize what was going and was able to stay away from him. I did nothing to provoke these attacks, unless you think a one-year old wearing a diaper is provocative. Obviously, this relative did. It took me years to deal with happened to me. I can't begin to tell you what such a violation does to a person's psyche.

No woman "asks for it." It doesn't matter how she's dressed or where she is. No man asks for it either, and men do get raped. Why, though, can't people go walking through their neighborhoods any time they want without fear of being attacked?

As far as showing off the "candy," what if I decided that a man wearing tight, sexy jeans looked like an easy mark and I forced him to have sex with me because I thought he had "asked for it"? I realize that's an absurb scenario, given that I can't even get a pickle jar lid open without my husband's help, but just use your imagination.

When people realize that their female relatives might be the victims of rape, they begin to change their attitudes. No matter how skimpily your female relative is dressed, you don't want her to be a rape victim.

Diane, you are absolutely right, rape is rape and the rapist should be punished., family member or not. A child molestor is sick, but they should still pay for the crime of defiling another person. Forcing yourself onto another person for non consensual sex is a crime and should be punished, whether there is violence involved or not.

"just use your imagination", Diane, imagination is powerful and women are prone to using imagination, too. Your reasoning that you are helpless withut your husband is no deterrant, if your moral compass is not working. Seduction doesn't take power. Lack of moral ethics is the underlying culprit in most crime, sexual or otherwise.

Locked doors, security lighting, covering up you bank deposit bag, etc. are all precautions we take to prevent being violated. Common sense tells you to not tempt the thief. Rape is theivery of your body.

It is nonsense to say pornography on the internet, as well as, TV and movies that exploit sex, does not tempt the weak individuals to go after a piece of action. The general public is so used to a menu of sex that the act isn't sacred or private anymore. Law enforcement and the courts are reflecting that lackadaisical attitude and thus the difficulty of getting justice for having been violated.

The violence that Amber describes is assault and battery and should be punished. If sexual agression is involved it should be a part of the charge and included in the counts the agressor is charged with.

Amber, One problem in the prosecution of sex crimes is the cost of doing DNA analysis on any evidence removed by doctors and stored in "rape kits". I believe such a DNA test costs around $1,000. One problem a few years ago in Missouri was the state didnt have enough money to pay for such tests so their was this huge backload of rape tests that were not getting processed. Some victims were resorting to paying for the processing out of pocket. It seems the state was only doing kits if they felt they had enough evidence from other sources to get a prosecution.

Do you know, does the state of Kansas process every rape kit? Do you know if the state keeps a DNA file on all people who are in prison?

Ken, As a Dad who takes his kids to school and places where teens hang out like the pool I am around alot of young females who have great bodies and who love to show them off. Once I was on a beach in the Bahamas where several women were wearing thong bottoms and nothing else. Yeah they looked darn good but in no way did it give me an excuse to go after them. I would hope that they would understand proper decorum and etiquette and that how one dresses is a sign of who they are especially on the job or at school. Or back to my beach example, they know what is appropriate on an adult beach at a resort and one back home with alot of families around. But fear of assault should not be the reason of whether or not to wear shorts. As men we need to learn control.

Brad, I agree with you about learning control. But many, both men and women, have not learned control. Nature is nature and the sex drive is powerful. Normal men are sexually aroused by visual. Why tempt them? That does not excuse them for violating others.

The story in the Bible about David and Bathsheba is an example. David saw a beautiful woman sunbathing in the nude. He was aroused and acted on his desire. We don't know whether Bathsheba resisted or not. David paid dearly for his indescration.

As far as the rape kit backlog, the latest info that I found was that in '09, KS had a backlog of more than 38,000 kits (plus over 11,000 new kits coming in for processing. In Sept '10, the KS AG's office reported that the backlog had been decreased down to just under 11,000. On a note of interest, there is federal legislation that many sexual assault advocacy groups are lobbying for called the SAFER ACT. This piece of legislation would work to decrease backlogs and allow better tracking of kits.

Ken - It seems that you clearly agree that the way a woman dresses doesn't make it okay to sexually assault her. What we disagree on is the notion that the way she dresses could make her an easier target for potential attackers. I'm asking you to consider how that kind of rationale perpetuates the shame a potential victim could feel (and also how it could make an a rapist feel that his actions might be "understood" or accepted). A woman who is date raped is not any less raped than a woman who is violently stranger raped. To insinuate that one is more forgiveable than the other is akin to sympathizing with the rapist for his action.

Men and women are both sexually can both be aroused visually. Being aroused is natural, violating someone becase you are aroused is not. A woman can wear clothes attention grabbing attire without signing over her most intimate rights to her body. I firmly assert that it is among a human beings most basic rights to assume that the limits they set for their own body would be respected. A woman can stumbles around her living room topless and with a bottle of tequila, but it doesn't give her date a reason to rape her.

I highly suggest that you check out the very powerful "Don't Be That Guy" campaign. It state "Typically, sexual assault awareness campaigns target potential victims by urging women to restrict their behavior. Research is telling us that targeting the behavior of victims is not only ineffective, but also contributes to how much they blame themselves after the assault. That's why our campaign is targeting potential offenders - they are the ones responsible for the assault and responsible for stopping it. By addressing alcohol-facilitated sexual assault without victim-blaming, we intend to mark Edmonton on the map as a model for other cities." http://www.sexualassaultvoices.com/our-campaign.html

Pam, thank you for the compliment!

*. . .and obviously, I need to proof before I post! :)

"A woman can stumbles around her living room topless and with a bottle of tequila, but it doesn't give her date a reason to rape her."

No, that doesn't give the date the right to force himself on her. But, maybe he should sue her for cruelty? Neither person in that scenario is showing good judgment.

I would tell my sons or grandsons to get out of that apartment as quickly as possible, before temptation overcame them. You'll never be involved in a 'bar room brawl' if you don't visit the bar room.

Ken, I appreciate your humor with the comment "sue her for cruelty." I admire you for staying with the give and take of this discussion and holding your own! ;-)

Pam, I can hold my own in most any discussion that I'm familiar with the subject. Rape is a very serious crime and I'll be the first one to acknowledge that women are automatically blamed, when men are challenged for aggressing. Our law enforcement agenecies and courts are dominated and influenced by the male species. They have been from the beginning of recorded history.

Both male and female should be aware of the temptations and dangers and avoid exposure to the risk. That doesn't mean women can't be women and look as attractive as they can. But if their sex appeal is the main attraction, then they need to be aware that it attracts unwanted advances.

Most of the violent physical beatings are not a real factor in the sexual activity. Sex is just adding insult to the injury. The human species have a few individuals who just simply feel the need to inflict pain on someone else.

Rape should not be the major charge in physical abuse. And prosecution for the physical assault should be pursued, whether sex is involved or not. It is especially demeaning to the woman when the abuser is exonerated from all charges when the female's past is called into question. I don't care if the female is a hooker, she is still entitled to say no, whenever she wants to. And, the man should be charged and prosecuted for violating her right to say no!

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