In 2016, I was raped on NMU’s campus, but it wasn’t until I reported my assault and was on the stand that I fully understood how the stigma of rape deters victims from reporting.
Rape survivors suffer from physical and mental trauma after the event occurs and typically have long-lasting psychological effects from the event—possibly even for the rest of their lives. Rape and sexual assault are topics we are taught and hear about on a regular basis, yet there remains a societal stigma that causes the trauma of being victimized to be even worse. Victims must deal with additional embarrassment, shame and fear from the stigmatized reactions of those who know about the rape, which is impacted greatly if the survivor is brave enough to report.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. NSVRC also states that 20 to 25% of college women and 15% of college men are victims of forced sex during their time in college. Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police.
Considering that rape and sexual assault is disgustingly common, one would think that the societal views and responses to such a horrific crime would be more empathetic toward the victim. This is not the case. People often do not realize that their responses, comments and facial expressions humiliate and discourage the rape victim.
“When I told people I’d been raped, I was faced with reactions of utter discomfort,” Bethany Rivett, a rape survivor who shared her experience on Women’s Views on News, said. “Some people were scared to discuss it, some didn’t make eye contact, while others said the necessary things in order to move on and change the conversation.”
Other victims go on to share the same experiences as Rivett. Some say that the stigma on rape goes so far as to put blame on the one who was raped by asking questions such as “were you alone?” and “were you drunk?” or “what were you wearing?”
Melonea Locklair Marek of People Against Rape in North Charleston fears that “the insinuation of blame that victims have endured have diminished recent progress focused on getting sexual assault victims to report their rapes.”
When I was testifying in the trial against my perpetrator, the defense attorney asked intimate, detailed questions about my assault, my past and present love life and other personal questions. In a rape trial, the accused has the option to invoke their right against self-incrimination, which allows them to avoid testifying and being cross examined, which seems like a backwards system to me. All in all, the stigma of rape in America is clearly prevalent from personal experience.
Not only does the stigma lie outside of the courtroom, but it lies within the very people of the jury who are there to deem whether or not someone is guilty of a crime. Two of the most common myths or stereotypes surrounding rape victims include blaming those who are “attractive” and not believing victims when they don’t show any physical signs of harm. The stereotype of sexual assault victims being “good looking” is often related to the mistaken belief that rape is always about sex rather than violence, and that the attractiveness of the victim is one of the “causes” of the assault. In reality, appearance and physical injuries do not define whether or not someone will be, or has been, sexually assaulted.
Perhaps the most appalling comment from my rapist’s trial was when one of the jurors, after the defendant was found not guilty, said to me, “At least you weren’t seriously hurt!”
Because I did not have physical signs of trauma on the day of my trial, this somehow convinced that particular juror that it must not have truly been rape. My internal wounds are much deeper than bruises or scratches. My injuries are not visible to the jurors’ eyes, but that does not diminish the pain I felt and still feel.
According to research by Mental Health of America, “Some victims respond to the severe trauma of sexual violence through the psychological phenomenon of dissociation, which is sometimes described as ‘leaving one’s body’ while others describe a state of ‘frozen fright’ in which they become powerless and completely passive.”
Due to the lack of knowledge on rape and the varying responses to fear, jurors often think that if a victim does not fight back that it is somehow consensual. This is wrong. Physical resistance is unlikely in victims who experience dissociation or frozen fright, or in instances when victims were drinking or using drugs before being assaulted.
Why are we stigmatizing the rape victim and not the rapist? If there was not such a blatantly negative reaction and fear of what people would think or say when they found out someone had been assaulted, victims would not be as hesitant to report their assaults.
If our court systems were not full of uninformed jurors and judges, the conviction rate in sex crime-related cases would go up. We need to do a better, more thorough job as Americans to understand and recognize the stigmas, stereotypes and myths regarding sexual assault. This begins with human compassion. Survivors should feel supported and comfortable speaking up about their attacks instead of being scared and ashamed.