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Same rape culture, different day

The Women’s Freedom Center (womensfreedomcenter.net) works to end domestic and sexual violence and serves both Windham and southern Windsor counties. Women in danger can reach an advocate 24 hours a day on the crisis line at 802-254-6954. Because of the sensitive and often dangerous nature of their work, we offer the Freedom Center advocates very rare anonymity in these pages.

Brattleboro

Since violence begins in the mind, it’s time we ask ourselves a tough question: what myths still feed the epidemic of rape?

In the U.S., sexual assault occurs every two minutes. One in five women are victims and, by age 12, one in four girls gets unwanted comments or is touched — even in public.

While anyone can be a victim and while most men are not rapists, 98 percent of rapists are men, and they usually are not strangers.

To justify their behavior, they need myths that silence survivors and give predators a free pass. Rape is trivialized and even glamorized in media, too, sending it further below the critical radar.

* * *

It’s against this atrocious backdrop that each new rape headline has to be read, and there have been a lot of them recently with the multiple accusations against entertainer Bill Cosby.

As social justice advocates, we can’t suddenly turn a gender-blind eye and offer an “innocent until proven guilty” shield to men, while their victims, mostly women, are basically dismissed as “guilty until proven innocent” by our culture.

The whole social rig is already upside down and needs a huge shift in thinking to overturn, let alone dismantle.

Consider, too, these challenging time frames: victim blaming still keeps many survivors silent for years, though it might take just hours or days for physical evidence to disappear, perhaps down the drain in the shower, amid the fog of severe trauma.

Meanwhile, it still can take decades for even one rapist to come fully into focus, especially if he’s a famous or funny guy who just happens to be a rapist, no matter how many similar victims or stories have been trailing in his wake.

One might ask: when even priests showed themselves capable of both the crime and the cover-up, how does so much faith still follow a comedian around?

Same rape culture, different day.

There is a handy shortcut to progress, of course: we blame rapists for rape. Instead, our society endlessly shores up male privilege, i.e. the right to access anyone’s body. The moment a victim speaks out, anything seems fair game to destroy her courage or credibility up front.

* * *

Let’s debunk the old myth around false reporting: on average, about 6 percent of reports turn out to be false, which is similar to the statistics of false reporting of other kinds of crime.

Survivors themselves might be subject to shame, blame, denial, ridicule, threats, isolation, and loss of privacy — to say nothing of renewed flashbacks — if they ever go public. That’s not much incentive.

Compare that to the high rate of unreported cases: an estimated 63 percent of assaults are never reported to police. Victims might talk to friends, though, or to family, advocates, health workers, coworkers, and community members.

Let’s be clear about something else, too: “them” could be any one of us at some point. Offenders cross everyone’s path. Rape doesn’t start with assault, but with attitudes and with all the planning a rapist does to deceive his next victim.

* * *

Alert bystanders can help. And for all the impact of media, what matters is not just messages we hear but also those we ourselves send every day.

Let’s resolve: if you hear about a victim, or a victim ever turns to you, remember that she or he is vulnerable just by virtue of coming forward, trying to live in a body where a violent experience took place, and putting one foot in front of the other to find a way through.

It costs nothing to be a safe, respectful listener. We owe them a humane response.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #297 (Wednesday, March 18, 2015). This story appeared on page D2.

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