Approaching a topic such as sexual assault is often difficult. People seem to try their best to avoid discussing the issue altogether. Something about it makes them feel inherently uncomfortable. Because of this taboo, there are plenty of misconceptions and lots of controversy that surround a topic that I think shouldn’t hold a stigma. Since I plan to become a clinical forensic psychologist, a job in which I’ll study all types of crimes, including sexual assault, I’d like to try to clear up the subject and make you feel more comfortable discussing it.
The American Psychological Association makes a point to encourage its members to decrease all kinds of harmful stigma in their respective fields. Psychology students—including those in my department at Florida Tech—are taught that mental illness should carry no more stigma than any physical illness. Both are equally important concerns in overall health and well-being. After all, the mind and body go hand and hand; if one or the other isn’t functioning to the best of its ability, there is bound to be an issue.
The same idea also applies to rape and sexual assault. Sexual violence is just as heinous (if not more so) as any other crime. We shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to discuss rape cases any more than anyone should be ashamed or afraid of discussing the latest theft, carjacking or homicide. Yet the stigma remains not only about the cases, but also the victims.
Recently, the Steubenville rape trials gained international attention because of the light in which the media portrayed the case. In the news, the crime itself was downplayed, the rapists were given great amounts of pity despite their offense, and the victim was shamed. News broadcasts seemed to only be able to focus on how a “single mistake had ruined two high schoolers’ promising football careers.” Indeed, the reactions from many of my peers were along the same lines; no one seemed to remember the victim of the crime, unless it was to place blame on her. Sadly, such “victim blaming” tactics are common in rape cases. Examples of these tactics include denouncing the victim by saying that they deserved to be assaulted for various reasons. This may include: the way that they were dressed at the time of the attack, whether or not and how much they had been drinking, various facets of their behavior and/or personality and more. Victim blaming comes in hundreds of different forms, all with the possibility of dire consequences – including everything from death threats to victim suicide.
Many victims are also accused of lying about their assault. As a result, some who have been the victims of sexual assault will not come forward due to fears about how they will be perceived and whether or not they will be believed. In the end, many abusers go unpunished; in fact, 97% of rapists will never set foot in a jail for their crime (“Reporting Rates,” Rainn.org).
The bottom line when it comes to sexually violent crimes is that awareness needs to be raised. These attacks can happen to anyone, regardless of sex, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, environment, sexual orientation or any other factors. Attackers are just as diverse in their demographic criteria.
If someone you know has become a victim of sexual assault, your duty as their friend is to be there for them. Listen to what they need from you. And please, never blame the victim, even if they are a stranger. The person that you’re condemning could just have easily been your best friend or your sister — or even you.
For everyone out there, my advice is this: Take steps to protect yourself and take steps to protect others around you. Never fear; rape is a heinous crime, but together we can take steps to combat it. I also encourage you to educate yourself; some of the facts and statistics about these crimes are shocking.
If you would like to learn more about reporting and the statistics of sexual assault, or would like to seek help, please visit RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network) at Rainn.org.