Earlier this week, the New York Times was rightly criticized for victim-blaming and overall bad reporting in a story about the gang-rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas. The reporter, James C. McKinley, seems preoccupied with what the survivor wore, who she hung out with, and whether her mother was keeping a close watch—the implication being that these factors explain or even begin to excuse the assault. He also focuses on how the incident has shaken the town, upset residents, and will have a negative impact on the attackers. Indeed, he seems eager to point to the suffering of everyone but the survivor herself.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Our culture has a long history of blaming women for rape and this has manifested itself in media coverage, police procedure, and courtroom verdicts. In the past thirty years, with rape-shield laws and the hard work of women’s advocates and rape crisis centers, we have been inching toward justice for survivors of assault—but this story reminds us how far we still have to go.
Blaming a woman for being sexually assaulted is wrong. Not only because it presupposes that women do not deserve to be safe unless they follow a complex and changing set of social rules (do not drink, do not wear a dress, do not ride alone in an elevator). And not only because it renders the action and choices of the rapist invisible and encourages rapists by excusing them. It’s also wrong because it contributes to a mythology of rape that compounds the trauma: the insidious notion that women (and sometimes men) deserve to be raped. This myth, prevalent in society and internalized by many survivors, creates a stigma that discourages them from talking about the assault, seeking help, reporting to the police—or even admitting the truth to themselves.
As a rape crisis counselor, I’ve seen the anguish survivors experience when they blame themselves. I’ve held their hands and told them over and over again, “It’s not your fault.” All the while knowing they probably don’t believe me.
As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I also know that heartache firsthand. I’ve never told this story before, outside of a few trusted friends. I tell it now to explain, and counteract, in my own small way, the damage I believe is done by the kind of irresponsible reporting we saw in this week’s Times.
Several years ago, I was sexually assaulted by someone I thought was my friend. Trembling even as I write this, I’ll not recount the details here.
Hours later, sitting alone in my bedroom, I began to try to process what had just happened to me. I replayed the events in my head a hundred times, cycling manically between shock, shame, horror, anger, disbelief, and despair. But most of all, I berated myself for letting it happen. How could I have been so stupid? I shouldn’t have gone to his house when I knew he’d been drinking. Shouldn’t have worn shorts—even though it was a warm night. Shouldn’t have let him kiss me the first time—before things turned violent. I should‘ve just left. I was convinced that, like some cruel choose-your-own-adventure story, there were countless forks in the road. If I’d only made better choices, I could have had a happier ending.
I saw each of the things I felt I’d done wrong as a freeze-frame—the memories crowding through my thoughts like a stack of postcards scattered on the floor. I should have never answered my phone when he called. I should never have walked through that door. One image kept pushing to the front: a heavy-looking lamp on a side table, just beyond the reach of my right hand. A scolding voice in my head screamed—I should’ve grabbed it. Smashed it over his head and ran. A quieter voice whispered from somewhere dark—I should’ve killed him. The idea thrilled, then sickened me.
The next day, I called to confront the man who was once my friend and had become my assailant. He first denied that anything at all had happened, then argued that what happened was consensual, then admitted to assaulting me but told me it was my fault. And in my new and twisted reality, all the women’s studies classes and feminist upbringing in the world couldn’t make me believe otherwise.
I was afraid to tell anyone—my friends, family—and even too scared to call an anonymous hotline, though I tried and hung up a few times. I could not free myself from the crippling fear that I wouldn’t be believed, or that someone would hear my story and ask, “Just what did you expect? I hope you’ve learned your lesson.” Or they would ask what I was wearing, why I was alone at his house in the first place, and what I did to provoke him or lead him on. I felt complicit in my own attack—as though the simple fact of my existence made me accomplice to the crime.
Eventually, I was able to tell a few close friends, and each time I did I felt compelled to explain, excuse, and justify my behavior. I felt the overwhelming need to prove that it really wasn’t my fault, and the ever-nagging certainty that it was. The trauma of the assault itself—the flashbacks, the nightmares, the irrational fear and mistrust of others—was a kind of prison I lived in for years. But the endless chorus of shame and self-blame was a relentless interrogator and psychological tormentor, employing the subtlest techniques to use my own thoughts against me.
As many survivors know, healing is a struggle, a two-steps-forward, five-steps-back process that will continue as long as the memory of the awful night lives with me. And much of that process has been trying to convince myself that what happened to me was not my fault. I know it isn’t. And sometimes I even feel it, which makes all the difference. But every time I hear, or read, someone blaming a woman for what a rapist did, it makes it a little bit harder to feel that way.
The injustice inherent in victim-blaming is not only about lowering women’s status in society, intellectual dishonesty, or unfair reporting. It is also about human suffering and the slow, steady chipping away of a hard-fought and sometimes fragile sense of self. It is about the sacred responsibility that comes with telling the story of someone else’s pain—a pain shared by the 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in America that have experienced rape. And to suggest that a clothing choice or any other action on the part of a survivor is the cause of that pain is to fail enormously at that sacred responsibility.
The truth is that no one deserves to be raped. I will say that again. No one deserves to be raped. To the little girl in Cleveland, Texas, and to all the girls and women and men and boys who’ve survived sexual assault, I say, my heart aching for you: it’s not your fault. And to anyone who dares to suggest otherwise: you should be ashamed.
Note: If you or someone you care about has been sexually assaulted, please call 1-800-656-HOPE or visit this site: http://www.rainn.org/get-help. You are not alone.
We are pleased to Welcome Kimberly to the Fem2.0 blogging team! Kimberly is reproductive and environmental health and justice advocate and writer. She studied philosophy and received a Bachelor of Arts from Hampshire College, where she also served on the student coordinating committee for the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s (CLPP) annual conference on reproductive justice. Kimberly is currently a volunteer with a local rape crisis center and is working toward her birth doula certification. Contact her via email here.