Rape was not explained to me. No one sat me down and told me what it was. When I was a young girl, I heard a news story about a rape in Central Park—the park my school took us to for physical education and recess, so I paid attention. The victim’s face was slashed during the attack—cut with a broken bottle, I think. So for the longest time, I used to think that being raped meant having your face slashed, and I wasn’t quite sure why it only happened to women.
I’ve heard a lot of messages about rape in my lifetime since then: No means no. It’s never the victim’s fault. Minors can’t give consent. Neither can someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I’ve also heard the statistics—estimations that up to 25% of women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. (And that most experts consider those estimates to be low.)
I’ve been a victim myself—albeit on the milder side of the spectrum. More than once during my high school years I’d be on a crowded rush hour train and feel a man’s penis explore my hip, butt, or leg. I wish I could say that I caused a scene that left him bruised or acutely embarrassed, but I didn’t. Instead, I held my tongue and suffered silently. I’d slide my bag down to create a barrier, but not once did I ever say anything. Instead I tried to convince myself that I was mistaken about what was happening, but deep down I knew someone was taking advantage of me.
My experiences on the subway are minor on the continuum of sexual assault. And I hope that I can say I’ve matured since then, gained my voice, and would handle the same situation differently now as an adult woman. Unfortunately, however, my silence is not unique—especially among women of color. Remaining anonymous as a victim of sexual assault is common. And, black women are even less likely than their white counterparts to report that they’ve been raped.
There are a lot of obstacles in the way of disclosure. Some are universal; some primarily affect women of color. For example, black women are less likely than their white counterparts to see their attacker penalized if they press charges—especially if the attacker is white. A study has also shown that men found guilty of raping black women receive shorter sentences than men found guilty of raping white women.1 These are just some of the deterrents women of color face when deciding if they should come forward. If they perceive that there is little hope of justice, many simply try to forget the incident and move on.
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If a woman chooses to disclose her experience of assault, the environment she finds herself in isn’t always supportive. Even though many of us give lip service to rape never being the fault of the abused, our response to an actual occurrence of rape betrays more complicated beliefs. We ask questions that are loaded like a weapon: What were you wearing? Are you sure this isn’t just your regret talking? These questions are additional assaults many victims face. Often they are damaging enough to either dissuade a woman from sharing her experience or pressing charges after initial disclosure.
Why do we blame the victim—even if subconsciously? Well, let’s look at what we gain from victim blaming. Usually it has more to do with making ourselves feel better and/or safer.
First, if we allow ourselves to think the assault is somehow the victim’s fault (even just a little bit), it makes it easier for us to process her suffering. As much as we understand that we don’t live in a Disney-ending world, it is hard for us to reconcile an atrocious act directed at a completely innocent person. The man detained by police was probably doing something shady. The woman who was mugged must have put herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s easier for us to accept that bad things happen to someone who was doing something wrong (or ill-advised). It’s much harder to process something horrible happening to someone who was doing everything “right.” This is why we’re tempted to ask the victim about what signals she may have given to the aggressor or what she was wearing—as if anything other than explicit consent should be construed as consent.
To be a better ally, we must live with the uncomfortable tension that no percentage of blame rests on the victim’s shoulders. It doesn’t matter what she was wearing or what she said. The moment “no” is uttered and ignored, the victim has been violated through no fault of her own.
Blaming is also more about us than it is about the victim. We blame to feel a false sense of control over our own life’s trajectory. If we can point to certain choices that the victim made (what she wore, what she drank, where she went), then we can feel safer by simply using her experience as a guide for what not to do ourselves. This is a false sense of security, but it’s one many of us cling to. We convince ourselves that if we simply avoid making her “mistakes,” that horrible thing that happened to her won’t happen to us. It is much harder to acknowledge that she did nothing wrong or ill advised and was still victimized. However, it is not our job to make sense of why the assault happened. And we shouldn’t expect the victim to make us feel better by providing a roadmap of the “right” choices or actions to avoid a similar fate. Being an ally to those who have been sexually assaulted means making it entirely about them and not at all about us.
Think about it: If victims of sexual abuse are 25% of the female population (at minimum), why don’t we hear about it more? Why don’t we talk about it more? Why is it that I can count on just one hand the number of women I know who have shared their stories of abuse? Well, given the large dosage of blame and judgment most rape victims face, and the decreased support and likelihood of justice African-American women have historically received, it is no wonder that for so many women (and for so many black women especially) rape is a dark secret—a taboo topic—never shared with anyone.
It’s difficult to come forward—whether on a private scale or publically. Consider the celebrities that have been in the news lately—whether they were the accuser or the accused. There is a disturbing trend. When the first accusations are made, the victim is almost never given the benefit of the doubt. We question whether she is just looking to make money. We wonder why she waited so long to come forward—as if coming forward is easy. It is usually the victim’s character that is most closely scrutinized—not that of the alleged aggressor.
When one woman comes forward and points the finger, everyone is watching. That includes other victims who are wrestling with whether they should say something. Seeing what happens to others that speak up, however, it’s no wonder that so many hold their tongue for so long—sometimes forever.
It is important that this trend change, however, because the cost of silence is high. Rape victims commonly suffer from a number of symptoms post attack. These can include, but are not limited to: denial, withdrawal, depression, chronic anxiety, or alcohol abuse/dependence. Sexual assault can also lead to an unplanned pregnancy or an STD. Can you imagine going through any of those things and not having a safe space to share your experience? It would only exacerbate your suffering. It is important that victims not feel isolated. It is our job to make them feel heard and safe.
How do we do that? First, on a personal level, we can challenge and correct our own victim-blaming words, attitudes, and actions. Don’t ask questions that put any part of the blame on the victim’s shoulders. Instead we should ask questions that are free of judgment—questions that probe how the victim is coping and what she needs to feel safe and begin to heal. Second, we can help to foster an atmosphere of hearing and healing in our communities—whether it’s our church, school, family, or neighborhood. Just as we begin to do a better job of removing victim blaming questions and assumptions from our own speech, we can humbly help others to do the same. Finally, we should advocate for the uninsured so that everyone has high-quality resources available to them—doctors, counselors, etc.
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Let’s make sure that if someone is brave enough to disclose that she has been the victim of sexual abuse we don’t add to her suffering. Let’s not re-victimize her with unfair assumptions or victim-blaming questions. Let’s be listeners. Let’s be safe outlets for her hurts and fears.
And if you have been a victim of sexual abuse, know that you are not alone. Hopefully there are people in your life that you trust and can share your story with as a first step to healing and (should you choose to press charges) justice. Our system isn’t perfect, but please don’t let that convince you to remain silent. Every person who speaks up makes it a bit easier for the next victim to step forward. And whether you have friends and family members you can confide in or not, I encourage you to seek out a professional therapist you feel comfortable with. You have suffered a terrible trauma. Just as a doctor can put a cast on a broken bone, a good therapist can provide a safe space for you to speak up, be heard, receive impartial advice, and heal.
Ending the silence around sexual abuse is going to take all of us. Let’s listen instead of labeling. Let’s support instead of second-guessing. Victims need to be cared for, not shamed or shushed. Silence only supports the stigma.
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(Feature Image: Two upclose photos of the same person, with a black curly afro that has orange and purple flowers in. In the first photo, the person’s head is tilted slightly upward and they are looking downward, their hand on their cheek. In the right hand photo, the person is looking directly into the camera. Both photos only show the right side of the person’s face. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chandlerchristian/15784446539/)