By now, most of us are familiar with the story of the 11-year-old girl who was raped by 19 young men. The story gets worse: this little girl, who was gang-raped, has become the target of victim blaming. A TV anchor quoted one of the rapists, who defended himself by saying, "She looked older than 11."
Then came a statement from the victim's father, who said, "She may look older than 11, but she still has the mind of a child."
It doesn't really matter what her father said, because he shouldn't have had to be on the defensive. I still cannot fathom how these men could even attempt to blame her, but I know that in reality, victim blaming is an all-too-common reaction in cases of sexual assault.
Many sexual assault victims who comment on my articles too often state that their family and friends do not support their admissions of rape, because they know their rapist. For some reason, people often invalidate rape victims because they find the fact that their rapist was an ex-partner, friend or family member unbelievable. They could not be more wrong.
Healing from sexual assault is very difficult, especially when your friends and family not only invalidate your claims but blame you for being raped. Victim blaming, however, is a huge part of our culture. I'm sure you've heard these all-too-classic lines, probably more than once:
- "She was dressed provocatively."
- "She had a bad reputation."
- "She should have known better than to put herself in that situation."
Through speaking with many other victims of sexual assault, it has become evident that in general, experiencing a rape is something others often refuse to validate. This is especially true in the case of acquaintance rape, as well as being raped by an ex, a current partner or a family member. Many people are quick to scoff at these types of "rape" claims.
Why is it that people are often more apt to take up arms against the rape victim rather than the rapist? Is it because they have never experienced the pain and humiliation of sexual assault and therefore can't possibly understand how a rape could happen between a person and their partner, spouse, co-worker or relative? Perhaps they place the blame on the victim because they didn't fight back? This doesn't make it any less of a rape than if the victim had violently protested. It is hard for most people to imagine the fear that rape victims experience when they are isolated and then sexually assaulted. It is especially confusing when you are raped by someone you know and trusted. Acquaintance rape happens more often than you think.
It is time to put an end to the biggest rape myth of all time. The rape myth I am talking about is that of the scary monster in the alley, because that is what many people think of when they hear the term "rapist." Although there are many violent and random rapes that happen both inside and outside the home, the fact is that 84 percent of rapes are executed by someone the victim knows. In fact, according to the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy, "Most of the time a person is raped by someone they know, trust, or love."
The scary monster in the alley is a convenient myth because the truth is much scarier. Assuming a rape cannot possibly occur between friends, colleagues or family members is on par with how most children define the term "stranger." In elementary school, when we learned about stranger danger, our teacher tricked us by asking if a dangerous stranger always looks mean and scary.
"Of course they do!" We vigorously shook our little heads in unison.
Clearly anticipating this response, she told us we were wrong and reminded us that a dangerous stranger can look nice and even friendly. This is often the same for rapists.
For most people, it is generally hard to accept that a person they spent many Christmas dinners with, or someone who came to their Fourth of July picnics, had the capacity to commit one of the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It is a fact that most victims know their rapists, and the discomfort a person may experience when learning that a person they know has committed a rape is no reason to invalidate the victim.
If someone tells you they've been sexually assaulted, there are a few things you can do:
- Believe them. As the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy says, "Believe them. A person has very little to gain by making up a story about sexual assault."
- Encourage counseling. Tell them about RAINN, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, and direct them to their website, centers.rainn.org. The site provides telephone numbers for sexual assault hotlines and has a great search engine that locates rape crisis centers in your area.
- Take them to get medical attention. Ask the victim if they want to go to the hospital. If the assault recently occurred, it is important to immediately seek medical attention for several reasons.
- Seek out law enforcement. Ask them if they want to report their assault to the police. If they want to go, it is helpful if they have a friend to accompany them. If they don't want to go, be understanding.
- Lend an ear. Just listening to their story and being there is probably one of the best things you can do to help a friend or relative who has been sexually assaulted. Validation is indispensable, especially because many victims of sexual assault incorrectly blame themselves.
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