Beyond blaming sexual assault victims
“Yes those young men were at fault. But is she equally responsible? What the heck is she doing drinking at 16? #Steubenville”
“@Time I don’t believe in ‘sexual assault is never your fault’ in every situation. The 16 yr old girl wasn’t forced to drink—set herself up.”
These tweets, part of a compilation by a guy named Matt Binder on a blog called “Public Shaming,” are all real responses to the Steubenville rape case. They’re disgusting. The case involved a 16-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by two high school football players while at a party. She happened to be drunk. Rape is evil enough, but much of the conversation surrounding the case is deeply troubling in itself. CNN and other prominent media outlets came under fire, rightfully, for focusing on the “ruined futures” of the boys convicted of the rape. Discussing sexual assault, like racism and other insidious subjects, is always hard, in large part because they are so painful. However, there’s also discomfort that comes with talking about these cases because they are taboo. Without conversation, there can be no progress.
Alcohol complicates this particular case and many other cases of sexual assault because it incapacitates. It lifts inhibitions, and it makes it easier to ignore the consequences of actions. But that doesn’t mean the victim in the Steubenville case, or any person who decides to get drunk, is at fault for her sexual assault. The fault lies with the perpetrator. Always. 100 percent. No exceptions.
In some ways, the “she was asking for it” narrative is perversely comforting. Sexual assaults happen to “bad” women. If you don’t get too drunk, if you don’t wear a short skirt and drink too much, and you stay away from bad neighborhoods, then you’ll survive and flourish. Because things like that don’t happen to nice, careful women (or any man, for that matter. And don’t even bring up transgender/queer individuals). Obviously, this isn’t true. People perpetrate horrible crimes even against the most careful and virtuous of individuals. While I won’t stop anyone from taking a self-defense class or declining a drink from a stranger, these aren’t the solutions to the problem of rape culture. These are band-aids.
Sexual assault is often characterized as a women’s issue, explicitly or implicitly. While the victims of sexual assault are disproportionately women, labeling it a “women’s issue” is like labeling birth control or gender equality a “women’s issue.” This label implies that these issues only affect women and that somehow the burden is on women to do something. Everyone, regardless of gender, should know how to treat people with respect. How to prevent assault. How to not rape. How to support those who have been assaulted.
The Steubenville case involves high school students and the extra drama associated with small-town football pride. But the situation at colleges and universities—including institutions similar to Wash. U. in terms of size and prestige—is just as troubled, if not more so. Alcohol culture is ubiquitous on college campuses; if those who blame the Steubenville victim for being drunk are to be trusted, then hundreds of individuals are “asking for it” on Wash. U.’s campus alone every weekend. We’ve all heard the statistics about sexual assault on college campuses so many times they’ve become almost white noise: one in four college women will suffer from sexual assault during her college career, and 70 percent of victims know their attackers. Statistics are helpful only if they lead to action. We need to learn, as a society, how to deal with sex, sexuality and sexual assault in productive ways. There is no quick fix, especially because even consensual sex is surrounded by taboo (see slut shaming, the Westboro Baptist Church and any debate about birth control).
Over the past year, rape cases at Amherst College and, more recently, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, have gained national exposure. Notably, in both cases, the victims reported that their cases were mishandled by the administrations of these schools. Here’s another statistic: according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. It’s bad enough that sexual assault happens at all, but how these cases are handled is troubling as well. We’re lucky that nothing like this has happened at Wash. U. recently, aren’t we? Or at least, nothing that’s been publicized—I find it hard to believe that no one on campus has been sexually assaulted in some manner over the past year, though I wish I could. Wash. U. recently revamped its sexual assault policy in order to streamline the process; hopefully this is for the better. But we should be talking about rape and sexual assault and consent now.