In at least two recent U.S. cases involving rape, representatives of the justice system have implied that the victim may have been partially to blame for the assault. In Montana, the judge in the initial sentencing of a teacher convicted of raping a 14-year-old student was suspended from the bench after making comments which seemed to suggest that the girl’s behavior was a factor in the case. Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, a former employee of the state Department of Corrections filed a lawsuit after being knocked unconscious and raped by an inmate with a previous history of sexual assault. In its response, the state’s Attorney General’s Office implied that the young woman may have been partially responsible for the heinous act.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an organization which partners with rape crisis centers across the country, sexual assaults occur about every two minutes in America. RAINN is dedicated to fighting sexual violence, providing resources to victims and helping to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. The organization also reports that a large number of victims never file a criminal report and, shockingly, 97 percent of offenders never see any jail time.
Pandora’s Project, an organization dedicated to aiding victims of sexual assault by providing resources, education and support to sexual assault victims, asserts that rape can be defined differently from state to state. The organization’s website offers three criteria to consider when trying to determine if rape has occurred: the age of the parties, whether or not the participants had the ability to consent and if there was agreement.
Based on the above criteria, the above 48-year-old man having sexual intercourse with the 14-year-old girl, who later committed suicide, would be considered assault regardless of the victim’s behavior. It is also reasonable to assume, in the case of the young woman who was assaulted after she let superiors know that she was uncomfortable with this particular inmate, that she had did not give consent. She was reported to be unconscious at the time of the assault and, it follows, did not agree to participate.
Most people would agree that sexual assault is a serious issue but some might wonder, when considering the scenarios described, if there is a larger problem to be considered. Some might wonder if, adding insult to injury, victims of brutal sexual attacks are now subject to being blamed for the act. Most victims of sexual assault would probably find having to defend themselves while going through the process of obtaining justice to be pretty harrowing, but being tried by the public is probably equally as traumatic.
According to Salisbury, Maryland’s Life Crisis Center’s Executive Director, Michele Hughes, blaming the victim is not that uncommon. A lot of times, people question the victim’s actions and wonder what she was wearing. This kind of thinking, which focuses on the victim rather than on the accused, is not always malicious in nature but it does gives the public a mechanism for distancing themselves from the act.
Heather Lynette Sinclair, herself a victim of sexual assault, spoke out in defense of a Maryland high school student raped in May of this year , saying, “You get more victim blaming when people are uncomfortable.” The executive director of Maryland’s Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Lisae C. Jordan, notes, “I think it often stems from a fear that something like this could happen to them, and so they want to make themselves different from the survivor.”
It is likely that people, faced with the reality of sexual assault and the fact that it could happen to anyone, at any time, might have a tendency to second guess the victim. It is also true that this response is likely very disheartening for those who are victimized and may prevent many from coming forward. While some rape victims are forced to deal with this type of censure within their communities, blaming by public officials, as in the case of the Montana judge or the Pennsylvania Attorney General, is not something that victims should have to encounter. Fortunately, advocates are working diligently to change the mindset that currently allows justice system officials to blame the victim for being raped or assaulted.
By Constance Spruill