Sadly, in a university city nearest me there has been an ongoing scandal revolving around the handling of multiple sexual assaults and rapes, both on campus and off. The part that has left certain segments of the community appalled and has become fodder for national commentary, is that it seems law enforcement and school officials deem it more prudent to tell the victims what they should have done or not done, while the perpetrators are hustled out of the country in one case, or carefully hidden from pubic scrutiny either by discouraging the victims from reporting the assault or closing ranks in a hugely popular football program. The U.S. Department of Justice is now looking at both the university and all aspects of the law enforcement process both on and off campus. In response to the investigation the local authorities have dug in and pointed their fingers at girls who in their opinion walked home too late, failed to watch their drinks every moment (date rape drugs have played a part in several instances), let their guard down in one way or another.
Not only does this feel like we have fallen back a half-century; never demanding accountability from the attackers and heaping blame on the victim; but it has fostered an atmosphere of fear and distrust on campus and off. Why is it so easy to blame the victim?
When one has been victimized, the injured party is left vulnerable and often retreats into various forms of denial and self-protection. The attacker falls back on their bravado and support of the environment that allows this behavior. This is bullying taken to its most extreme. The most helpless are often the least protected, and being aware of the cultural acceptance of brutal acts, leaves them feeling as if they have no shelter or protection. The only way to continue this culture is pointing a finger at the weakest, while guarding and defending the bully.
Demanding accountability when one holds a position of authority, especially when that stance goes against the tide of public opinion, requires backbone and tenacity. That seems to be in short supply. The lone public figure who did not scramble to prove that they were in the right and the perception of victim hostility was wrong, has taken enormous heat in the community, and is likely to continue to do so. It is also interesting that while he made headlines with firings in the athletic department of the university and his programs to call attention to this despicable situation have received a fair share of press coverage; the perception continues that the risk of reporting is too great and the risk of punishment insignificant. Taking some responsibility for continuing to foster a dated and harmful attitude is woefully lacking in the rest of the public discourse.
What we see instead is scrambling to appear that the situation is under control. Yesterday’s local paper went so far as to devote as many column-inches to the economic impact to tourism as it did to the federal investigation. The response by the business community which has worked hard to create a vacation destination campaign? You got it, blame the victims. Assuring the people they are hoping to attract to the “Garden City” that these are just careless drunken college girls and that we do not in fact have a “real” problem is the word they are trying to get out. Apparently we do have a “real” problem and that is that this city is mired in the middle of the last century and fails to grasp that this attitude reflects at least as poorly on the town and university as the problem of sexual assault does. A significant number of those tourist dollars they are trying to attract come from families whose children attend the university. It seems that a little assurance that there is some effort to rein in this aggressive behavior would go further than pointing at the brutalized college student and saying that it was their risky or inattentive acts that are at the root of this.
There is a line between taking responsibility for placing oneself at risk and shouldering the blame when the risk results in assault. The attacker carries the larger part of this responsibility and until we demand accountability the victim will continue to take the blame.
Tomorrow – Blaming the Victim Part 2, How the Heath Care Industry Blames the Victim