Rape: blame hurts victims, deters reports
Friends who saw the 15-year-old crying, disconsolate and disheveled, believed that something terrible must have happened at lunchtime.
But according to her mother, most of the teenager’s peers at Truckee High School thought differently about her charge that a fellow freshman raped her. She was probably lying, some said. And if it was true, she shouldn’t have told.
The alleged rape that occurred last month near Truckee High’s Surprise Stadium is an example of what sexual assault experts call the norm. Instead of waiting for the courts to determine the truth, people draw their own conclusions in the wake of assault allegations – usually that the alleged victim is to blame.
“There were signs in the hall that said [the suspect] is innocent; they were all over the place,” said the victim’s mother, who will remain anonymous because the victim is a juvenile. “People … are constantly telling her, ‘you shouldn’t have told, you’re ruining his life.'”
Victim blaming, experts say, is often an automatic response to sexual assault and rape allegations. Why is blame so common in the wake of sex crimes, but not other assaults like robbery?
The psychology of blame surrounding sexual assault stems from people’s desire to distance themselves from the possibility that it could happen to them, said Jody Anderson, Tahoe Women’s Services client services director.
“It’s tied into denial. If we as a society can find ways to distance ourselves from the victim, then it can’t happen to us,” she said.
The most common ways to draw lines between “normal people” and victims is to find things that may have caused the assault: a short skirt, a promiscuous reputation, alcohol, walking at night.
People say, “‘she seduced him’, ‘she’s lying,’ because it’s easier than saying, ‘yes, I can be victimized,'” Anderson said.
University of California, Davis professor Jacqueline Horn, Ph.D, explained it this way: “We don’t like to think that bad things can happen to us just randomly. A lot of it is not wanting to think that you have no control over it.”
Many teenagers and young adults accept as fact that if a woman is wearing provocative clothing, she deserves to be raped or assaulted, according to Hilary Kleger, TWS prevention program manager. In the awareness classes the organization presents at Tahoe-area schools, students are given facts about sexual assault and then asked to answer whether they think a statement is true.
“One of the statements we use is, ‘girls ask for it by the way they dress or act.’ Usually there are a few students who say, ‘yes, they do,'” Kleger said.
The Truckee High student’s mother wasn’t surprised when her daughter was blamed for her own alleged rape.
“I knew what [she] was headed for the moment she told,” the mother said. “[The victim] is to blame for everything that happened.”
Being accused of lying or of causing an assault re-traumatizes victims, Anderson said, since they already experience shame and self-blame following an attack.
“You’re in a situation where you’re having a violent crime done against you for someone else’s sexual gratification . . . [in] a society that’s directly or indirectly saying, ‘did you fight hard enough?'” Anderson said.
Often people don’t understand why a victim didn’t fight back if the perpetrator wasn’t aiming a weapon at his or her head, she added, explaining that often victims are physically over-powered or frozen in fear.
“People end up playing it over and over again in their heads, wondering what they could have done differently,” Anderson said.
This, coupled with blame from their friends and family, can cause depression and even suicide, she said.
Blame not only affects victims’ recoveries, it also deters others from coming forward to report assaults.
“Sex crimes are under-reported because victims do to themselves the same thing we do to victims – they tend to be very ashamed and blame themselves,” said UC Davis’ Horn.
Since signs were posted labeling the victim a slut after the alleged rape in Truckee, Anderson said, victims who would otherwise report sexual assaults likely will not.
According to Anderson, only 2 percent of reported rapes and sexual assaults are false reports. She urged people to listen to those who report being assaulted, validate their injuries and encourage them to get help.
TWS offers 10 free counseling sessions and subsequent visits require only a $10 co-pay.
“We have to, as a community, push for harsher punishments, be there for people and make it a safer community,” Anderson said.
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