Penn State and Our National Attitude Towards Rape

12/07/2011 09:35 am ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

Why America doesn't care about rape

The Penn State scandal is a much-publicized tragedy, but for many women in America and around the world, the threat of rape is a daily and haunting reality that often goes unnoticed by the media and the public. One in four women will be sexually assaulted during her time at college, and one in six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), an anti-sexual violence research and advocacy organization. Even though so many women are affected by the pain of rape and sexual assault, it took a star-studded case to bring the issue of rape to the forefront of American interest.

The subject of rape is often cloaked in secrecy and shame, which can greatly reduce the action taken against rapists. RAINN estimates that 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police resulting in 94 percent of rapists never serving a day in jail. This lack of reporting and seeming indifference stems from many facets of the American attitude and the nature of rape.

A major obstacle in reporting rape is the relationship between the victim and the assailant. According to RAINN, two-thirds of all rape victims know their rapist personally. Reporting a friend or family member for sexual assault may be embarrassing or uncomfortable for a victim or witness. In the Penn State scandal, as with many cases of rape, there was an element of disbelief in Sandusky's actions that hampered an earlier or more urgent reporting of the situation. Of course, there is also the concern of tarnishing a person or institution's reputation with rape accusations that halts the reporting of a rape.

In the case of Penn State, there was obviously a close and supposedly caring relationship between Sandusky and his victims that may have blurred the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior at the onset of the sexual harassment. Many people, Sandusky included, wrote off the boys' locker room showers as just a part of their close relationship. These justifications make it difficult for witnesses and victims, especially victims as young as the ones involved in the Penn State scandal, to recognize what constitutes as sexual assault, making them less likely to reach out and get help. Despite these hesitations, jumping to the worst conclusion as a last resort leaves victims stranded and alone when fighting and understanding his or her sexual assault.

Even if a rape is reported, it does not necessarily mean that justice will be granted to the victim. Often times the validity of a rape is left in the hands of a police officer or doctor who may have differing definitions of rape. In addition, when it comes to rape, many people resort to a victim-blaming mentality, saying victims "had it coming" based on the way they dressed or behaved. This mindset can result in shame and an overall unwillingness to divulge the details of rape. A 2010 study by The Havens, a sexual assault crisis center in the UK, found that half of those surveyed believed that there were some circumstances when a woman should accept responsibility for rape and, 31 percent of women and 23 percent of men thought women were to blame for rape if they had dressed provocatively. This mentality gives an excuse for people to act apathetically toward rape and sexual assault. If people believe a woman deserved to be raped, they can feel comfortable accepting that rape is inevitable and not work to aid victims or report rapists.

The Penn State scandal shows America the frighteningly uncaring attitude that many have towards rape. Even more appalling than Jerry Sandusky's atrocious acts were the many people who knew what was happening but chose to remain silent. Campus officials carefully weighed the price of football fame against the well-being of the victims and they, unfortunately, chose glory over justice. The decision to protect a school's name over the protection of its students is hardly unique to the Sandusky case. Yale and Harvard have both been under fire for recent allegations against the schools for not persecuting assailants of sexual assault. At Yale, cheating results in a two-year probation, while rape only results in a four month probation. It is impossible for schools to create a safe environment for all students when rape results in a less severe consequence than cheating. If schools and America as a whole do not take rape seriously, we will continue to be plagued by Sandusky situations and throngs of people who, in the face of justice, decide to remain silent.