In retrospect, our reaction is shocking. At the time, it felt as if she had given out too much information that wasn’t meant for our ears. I don’t recall the details. I do remember that it was clearly not her choice and my reaction: I did not see her as a victim. I compartmentalized diametrically-opposing information: victim & easy. I viewed her rape not as something done to her but something sensational she was involved in: sex with group of boys. More importantly, she was no longer just another teenage girl in school. She was now “other.” I never saw her the same way again but defined her (like many uninformed do) by what was done to her: sexually available. This is important: As an uneducated 13-year old, I stopped seeing her as my fellow classmate. She was now defined by what had been done to her.
I did not ask her who had done this. I did not ask her if she had told someone or if she needed help. Until this very moment, 44 years later, I never spoke of it to anyone. I am writing about it now because it is these unspoken questions and judgements that continue to reside at the heart of stigma inflicted on victims of violence. They face it not just by the court system, or the police, or the community (friends and family) but by each of us. As our lives are touched by the violence of others, we become witnesses to trauma and actions of inhumanity. We scramble for coping methods that will keep our world in control. It is a self-preservative act that can have long reaching consequences on a broader scale.
Even though we want to believe our society has evolved from those harmful 70s attitudes, they lurk in the corners of our contemporary social constructs and leak out at inconvenient times. Anyone working in the field of violence against women knows that victims who choose to disclose must brace themselves for a hostile judicial system and be ready to be disbelieved. They know that their offender will most likely claim, “S/he is lying. S/he wanted it. S/he is upset I rejected him/her.” Before court they are mentally-prepared to be slammed, interrogated, and made to feel incompetent around telling the difference between a person and their rapist and/or between wanting sex and being violated. They are warned that family and friends may find their reports difficult to accept and they may lose them. However, if a survivor is lucky, one of the many publicly-funded advocates for the sexual assault victim will be there to assist her/him through the rough spots. These organizations will be objective around fault along with the reality of victim-blaming and can help create bridges with family and friends. They will believe the survivor’s account.
This type of abandonment is most common when the offender has a powerful position within the community. Think of just how many reports regarding Jerry Sandusky (Penn State Coach) were given to authorities, starting in 1994, without consequence. His employees, prior victims, and the sports industry itself acted to shield him from discovery. He started The Second Mile initially as a group foster home and then as an organization to assist young boys where he harvested victims whom he showered with gifts and privileges. He was a celebrated coach. The exposure of his crimes against children was celebrated by the women's community fighting gender-based sexual violence.
In fact, the type of sex offender who actually holds the most power to hide and obfuscate allegations of sexual assault is a female, feminist therapist known for working in the field of child sexual abuse. That perpetrator can operate with impunity protected by disbelief in the very community of advocates who should be supporting her victims. It is a community that minimizes the overall rate and problem of female perpetrators. Educated as an authority around mental health issues, the female therapist/rapist can proffer “expert” explanations as compared to the average rapist, “S/he (really) is crazy/borderline/paranoid.” The survivor of therapist abuse, especially a female feminist one, faces stigma that is exponentially worse because it often comes from the very people they should be able to explicitly rely on: those who say survivors should be believed but who, in this scenario, find their assumptions and positions about gender-based violence threatened when the perpetrator doesn't fit their generally-agreed-upon model.
The stigma that we most often recognize, as survivors and advocates, we can also talk about – point at – name it and have company coping with it. But what if no one is pointing? What if no labels are being developed? And, what if those who should be there are walking away? That young teenager in the 70s should have been able to rely on her fellow, female friends to understand her trauma. Survivors of female perpetrators or of exploitive therapists should be able to rely on the women’s organizations that support every other survivor through their trauma. Instead, they are faced with walls built by stigma that expose the places rape culture has disregarded, where victim-blaming rears its ugly head in sexual assault centers, where violence is reframed as an allegation and the victim is labelled mistaken, crazy, or paranoid, and where the #IBelieveSurvivors mantra suddenly falls silent.
It is time to point at and name this stigma.