Did you know that the US ranks 13 for rape in the world? According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Rape, incest, and abuse are rampant in our society. These numbers continue to rise because we accept the silence culture, refuse to learn the real facts about rape, and detach ourselves from the issue. We can all participate in preventing sexual crimes by promoting rape literacy, openness, and compassion.
In December of 2011, the FBI finally changed its 85-year-old definition of rape from “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” to “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” We are making progress in treating sexual assault as a gender-neutral issue, recognizing that males are also raped, but until we see rape as any unwanted, unconsented sexual act or contact, whether attempted or completed, we fail to grasp the scope of this issue and remain illiterate as a nation. Without an accurate definition of what rape really is, it is difficult to admit you have assaulted someone or to acknowledge you are a victim.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “victim” as “a person who is cheated, fooled, or hurt by another.” Many women and men are reluctant to identify themselves as victims because of the negative connotation it has. At age 19, I became a victim of sexual assault when I was kidnapped and almost killed by a merciless man. When I realized the stigma attached to this experience, I regretted surviving and wished the assailant had been successful in his attempted murder.
Besides the undesirable labels, most victims of sexual crimes face disbelief, blame, and invalidation. This is especially true when victims have engaged in behaviors that may have heightened their vulnerability, such as drinking alcohol or walking alone in a dangerous part of town. The fear of being dismissed, shamed, or blamed is the main reason why rape is the most under-reported crime in the U.S. The NSVRC estimates that 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
The popular notion that victims of sexual crimes must take “personal responsibility” for the inexcusable and almost irreparable pain that was inflicted upon them is not only an uneducated misconception, but also a damaging one. My attack was traumatizing, to say the least, but it was even more denigrating to have to appear in court, face the attacker, and be doubted and questioned as if I had fabricated the assault, or even worse, “asked for it.” While most rape reports are assumed to be untrue and dismissed, in 2012 the NSVRC reported a prevalence of false reporting of only 2.1%.
Victim blaming happens in both subtle and overt ways. Consider an18-year-old victim identified as “Marie” who was bullied by the Lynnwood, Washington Police Department. She was coerced into admitting she lied about being raped in August 2008, and eventually prosecuted for false reporting, facing up to a year in jail. In January of 2011, Marie received the news that pictures were found in attacker Marc O’Leary’s computer, proving her rape indeed happened. No sympathy, apology, or concern was expressed at that time. She simply received a pamphlet with counseling information, along with a $500 refund for court costs. O’Leary pleaded guilty to 28 counts of rape, five of which happened after Marie’s report had been dismissed as a lie.
Though we have much to learn, most of us agree that rape is a monstrous act. However, the mentality that perpetrators are monsters actually propagates rape culture too, because we are less likely to believe that anyone could commit these heinous crimes. We also don’t ask ourselves why. In 2005, serial sex offender Brent Brents was sentenced to 1,509 years in prison for his guilty pleas to 68 counts of rape. In a 2007 interview with National Public Radio (NPR), he shared that his motivation was payback for the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child.
We are failing to ask the right questions about rape and choosing to ignore the answers we do have. Most people avoid having a conversation about rape, feel uncomfortable listening to rape remarks or stories, or deny that it happens. The sense of secrecy is triggering to victims, adding unnecessary pain to a perpetually open wound. It also sends a message to people who are deliberately predatory that they will be protected and won’t have to face strict punishment. Openness to discuss rape with children could prevent it from happening or accelerate the healing process, when inevitable. Without well-informed, frank conversations about unconsented sex acts, there cannot be true compassion.
As a victim, I cherish when others genuinely demonstrate empathy, offer support, or provide a safe place for me to express my emotions. Such compassion and non-judgment makes it easier to report, open up, and heal. But, what if we extended compassion to the sex offender? I begged my rapist to stop for four hours and he never did, so I wonder what life he led to numb him so. Brent Brents was called a “punk” and a “monster” until he opened up to reporter Amy Herdy. She promised in a letter to treat him with dignity and respect, which turned out to be all he ever wanted. “There are so many people who could have done something,” he affirmed to NPR. Could it be that the kindness and concern of a neighbor, a teacher, or a simple stranger could have impacted Brent Brents and possibly prevented the crimes he committed? Perpetrators must severely pay for the crime they commit; however, it is imperative that their motivations be heard and studied. We must look to the root and prevent future rapes, rather than focus on what someone could have done differently in an attack that already happened.
According to Dominic Williams, coordinator for convicted sex offenders returning to the community, “Rapists tend to have very low self-worth. They usually have one of two, if not both, of the following major issues: a deep unresolved anger towards women (usually rooted in domestic violence) and a great difficulty establishing relationships (due to having been abused, neglected or abandoned as children).”
Several studies reveal that sexual violence is often a learned behavior in childhood. Rapist motivation has been associated with “childhood environments that are physically violent, emotionally unsupportive, and characterized by competition for scarce resources.” (Crowell NA, Burgess AW (eds.) Understanding violence against women. Washington, DC).
Rape is not “penetration.” Rape is not gender specific. Rape is a tragic act that strips both parties of the possibility of a decent life. Rape is a heartbreaking epidemic you can help prevent as you focus on becoming educated, have the courage to openly speak about sexual crimes, and offer words of kindness to both victims and so called villains. Rapists are not monsters, victims didn’t ask for it – let’s talk about it!