Awareness is not enough

Michelle Seyler, Guest Blogger, (’12, University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law)

There are times when I worry that the discussion about rape culture has been overplayed – by now, most of us know it exists and, for some, this seems to be enough. This awareness, however, is just the beginning, and we must continue the hard discussion in order to change society’s perspective.

When women are raped, the response they receive should be supportive – from friends, law enforcement, and society; but sadly this is not often the case. Instead, rape culture dominates and women and men alike often blame the victim for being raped by questioning what she was wearing or the actions she took or did not take.

To fill in my point, I would like to tell you a story of a friend of mine. She was raped by someone she knew, and was further traumatized by the impossibility of finding justice through our criminal system, and the reaction of others when she decided to speak the truth.

My friend’s story is all too common: she was out one evening with some law school colleagues and when she decided she wanted to leave, a “friend” said he was going to share a cab and take it to his apartment after it dropped her off. When they arrived at her home, he got out and said that it was too late to go all the way to his place; he promised to just sleep on her couch. Despite her better instincts and minutes of arguing, she relented and let him in. What happened next is nothing short of horrific. Instead of sleeping on the couch, he got into her bed and violated her in every way possible. She knew this man well enough to know that he had a temper –  one that she feared would cost her her life if she called the police that night, or even months later. If she pressed charges, she felt like she would have to leave her city. Immediately. In light of this, she chose not to report him because she wanted to survive.

She recently told her story anonymously on a blog where she hoped she would receive sensitivity and understanding. The post garnered more than 140 comments and the majority were supportive. However, it also elicited too many comments blaming her actions – saying that she shouldn’t have gotten into the cab in the first place, especially if she was aware of his propensity toward violence. As the comments flood in, she explained that it felt like a hundred bees stinging her all at one.  One in particular stood out to me: “I feel horrible about what happened, but I can’t do anything about it. You should have known better, and it’s your fault for all the women he rapes in the future.”

Seriously? Rape and sexual assault are unique to each survivor, and we must stop blaming the victim. Women, despite what they are wearing and regardless of their decisions, should feel safe to say “no” and trust that they will be heard. When they are not, we must place the blame squarely on that of the perpetrator.

I believe the critical comments on her post are representative of the way many in our country think about rape. But rape is not just a concept in need of debate – it is a crime committed against one in four women in this country, and it needs to be reframed. Some who read her story had the knee-jerk reaction of “blame the victim”- why did she get into the cab? Why did she let him in? Why didn’t she press charges if he is such a dangerous man?

The answers to these questions are personal and, I hope for most of you, self-evident. But as long as there are those out there who have the audacity to hold my friend responsible for the actions of her perpetrator, we have a lot of work to do.

Michelle Seyler (’12, University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law) is currently pursuing an LLM in International Human Rights from the University of London, University College London. She has an extensive background in journalism, academic writing, and advocacy for women’s rights.