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.
Don'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.
Is 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.