Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Taking sexual assault more seriously

Last week, the Badger Herald (one of two student dailies in Madison) reported on a young woman who was allegedly raped last October while attending a party at a local fraternity. You can read the article here, and the accompanying transcript of the interview with the woman here.

The story itself is horrifying: The young woman went to a party, blacked out, and woke up the next morning partially undressed and lying in a strange bedroom. Tests performed at the hospital after the fact show that she was likely raped by several men, and though she has since filed a formal complaint with police and an investigation is ongoing, there hasn't been so much as a peep from the frat involved.

But scroll down into the comments section of that original article for the massive insult to this already terrible injury. While a good few people chime in with words of support and reason, all too many (mostly anonymous) start in with the victim blaming.

(There's more commentary over at the Critical Badger's blog, too, including some further insight into the Greek system's private governing board, etc.)

For all our society's progress in dealing with sexual assault, incidents like this make it all too painfully clear what a long way we've still to go.

There is legitimate concern that this story will automatically paint every member of the fraternity as a potential rapist. As a few, refreshingly logical comments have already pointed out, it's of the utmost importance in cases like these to let the investigation play out so that the guilty parties can be properly brought to justice and those who've done nothing wrong don't get their names dragged through the mud along the way. Throwing bricks through frat windows doesn't help, either (though I certainly understand the impulse).

But, with apologies to all perfectly nice and moral members of the Greek system, our main concern in this sort of situation should be for the person making the allegations--not for the frat. Journalists and law enforcement should certainly do their best to keep the story from getting away from them and tarnishing the names of the innocent, but our primary concern should be support for the victim.

You always believe someone when they tell you they were raped. If the facts later turn out to prove something to the contrary, you deal with that then. Up front, it is incredibly important, as a friend or just someone in the community, not to cast aspersions and doubt upon the person who has had to come forward to tell a deeply personal and awful story. Statistically, only a very small percentage of those who experience sexual assault ever come forward and/or press charges. A major part of the reason for that is the social stigma they then are usually forced to deal with: people calling them liars, accusing them of trying to smear the "good names" of friends and family (because attackers are more likely to be someone you know), claiming that by being in a certain house at a certain time or drinking alcohol or wearing revealing clothing means they were just "asking for it."

As though somehow, some way, this was at least partially their fault and they should just shut up and move on.

Bull. Shit.

The only person who deserves blame in situations like these is the perpetrator. No one forced them to commit the crime. Too often, however, our society plays it off as drunken hijinks or "boys being boys" (which, quite frankly, I would be insulted by if I were a guy--insinuating that I had no control over myself).

It hasn't helped that the UW Dean of Students, Lori Berquam, apparently dropped the ball when contacted by the victim. She is now trying to make up for that by holding a forum on sexual assault--which is good--but I'm a bit suspicious of anyone who would say that "We do take [vandalism] very seriously, the same way we take sexual assault seriously." Which one of these is not like the other?

I don't doubt her sincerity in saying that sexual assault should not be tolerated, and in wanting to help provide support for those who've been affected. What I do doubt is a real understanding of what victims often go through, and what they need in the aftermath. My own alma mater had serious problems dealing with this very issue, as they were seemingly more concerned with the appearance of being pro-active than actually being pro-active. Cases involving students from prominent, wealthy families were swept under the rug. And those that did go public were often dealt with incompentently and slowly (for instance: the perpetrator of one sexual assault was allowed to continue living in the same dorm as the victim for months after the case was reported).

Certainly, it's no easy thing for anyone to deal with sexual assault. But we must all keep in mind that the person having the hardest time with it all is the person who was attacked. Taking care of them should be our number one priority, right next to finding the individual(s) responsible and making sure they spend a hefty amount of time behind bars.

1 comment:

Dustin Christopher said...

I do take the "boys will be boys" thing personally. I also take it personally when a group of scumbags commits a crime like this on the campus that I called home, the campus I'm still otherwise damn proud of and the campus where my little sister is a student. Some of the responses to the Badger Herald story have made me downright sick.

The Lost Albatross