The sexual assault blame game

Sexual assault victims, seeking support of loved ones and strangers, face stigma



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A female IU student had already been to the Vid and had already drank at the Bluebird Nightclub. She thought she was done with the bars for the night. The group of five she started the night with dwindled, and she returned to her apartment.

Her best friend called, begging her to come back out. She agreed. She found a ride and arrived at Kilroy’s Sports Bar at 2 a.m. They stayed until close — 3 a.m. — and wandered to the Taco Bell next door.

She and her roommate were “shooting the shit” when he walked up.

He wore jeans, a collared shirt and a black zip-up sweatshirt. He had brown hair, brown eyes and an average build. He asked for a lighter.

She was an IU junior that night. She’s now a senior, and a rape victim.

He said his name was Brandon. He said he was a 23-year-old psychology major at IU and that he was from Ellettsville, Ind. She now doubts his story.

She invited Brandon to head home with her that night from the Taco Bell parking lot. She made it clear to him she didn’t want to have sex. She thought they wouldn’t go much further than making out. He seemed accommodating.

While “fooling around,” he pinned her arms back so her hands were at the sides of her head. She froze. And then he raped her, taking her virginity.

Nearly 17 months after the rape, she’s more eager to be the sober driver for nights out drinking. But she refrains from making a rule to always be in charge of car keys for the night. Making rules doesn’t help her admit it wasn’t her fault. Friends still suggest she not get drunk “this time.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Instead of ‘don’t rape,’ people say ‘don’t get raped.’ It’s not fair.”

***

Drunk sluts. Loose morals. Not fighting hard enough. Staying out too late. Wearing short skirts. It’s called “victim blaming.”

IU Health Center counselor Debbie Melloan has worked with sexual assault victims at Counseling and Psychological Services for 23 years. Despite the University’s sexual assault outreach and prevention programs, IU students don’t seem to engage in victim blaming much less than the general population, she said.

Victim blaming, Melloan said, obscures one key point: Sexual assaults happen because a perpetrator decides to disregard consent and do what he or she wants. No matter how much women or men curtail their alcohol consumption or how closely women watch their hemlines, they don’t have control of a rapist’s decisions.

“All of us do things every day that can create our vulnerability,” Melloan said. “But, it takes somebody else to decide to exploit that vulnerability for a sexual assault to happen.”

Men aren’t the only culprits. Melloan said women blame female victims as a defense mechanism. Feeling vulnerable and scared, women find ways to separate themselves from sexual assault victims.

She stayed at the party when her friends left, but I don’t do that. She blacked out, but I don’t do that. She went into the guy’s bedroom, but I don’t do that.

“It’s sort of a way to give yourself this false sense of security so that you don’t have to deal with your own vulnerability,” Melloan said.

The roots of victim blaming reach deeply into traditional gender roles. Melloan explained that, historically, in heterosexual relationships, women are the gatekeepers, responsible for protecting their virginities.

Men have historically been portrayed as hormone-crazed and unable to control sexual desires. The sexual revolution only granted women permission to have premarital sex about 40 years ago, she said, but previous gender roles haven’t disappeared yet.

“There’s sort of this assumption, then, that if something happens that the woman doesn’t want to have happen, then it’s her fault for not having kept the gate shut,” Melloan said.

There are ways to reduce the risk of being sexually assaulted. However, a better approach, Melloan said, is looking at the environments in which assaults occur. Rather than concentrating on the victims, she suggested concentrating on attitudes and behaviors that allow sexual assaults to happen.

Melloan referred to social stigmas, such as cigarette smoking. Thirty to 40 years ago, American society didn’t condemn those behaviors, she said. But society recognized they were harmful. Today, smokers can’t light a cigarette in many public places.    

“That would be my hope that, as a campus or as a culture, that we have the same sorts of stigmas against treating women that way and disregarding ‘no’s’ that we do around some of those other behaviors,” Melloan said.

***

The victim’s roommate convinced her to shower after the rape. For the first time, the victim saw the physical damage — bruises, bite marks and blood covered her body. The day after the rape, she went to IU Health Bloomington Hospital with her best friend and her roommate for a sexual assault exam.

She needed medical attention, and she wanted documentation of her rape. She completed a rape test kit with a sexual assault nurse examiner and a Middle Way House volunteer.

“It validated that it happened,” the victim said. “And no one can ever take that away from me, because there’s proof.”

She didn’t want to report it to law enforcement. She was too afraid they wouldn’t believe her story. She felt she would be attacked by public opinion and a defense lawyer. She was drunk, and she invited him home. She didn’t want to hear what people would say.

“That right there is enough for our society to question it,” she said. “That’s enough, no matter what ... I would look like a drunk slut with a regret, and that’s too much to bear.”

Almost everyone in her life who knows she was raped knew within the first week after it happened. She stopped telling people after she told her cousin. Her cousin, a female similar to her in age, tried consoling her: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“Then she said, ‘You know, you learn from things, so you’ll know better next time.’ That just ...” she  paused. “I stopped telling people after that, because it made me feel like shit.”

She has heard a similar refrain from others. She was working in a group in a German class when she overheard an adjacent group discussing sexual assault.

Three students — two women and a man — argued rape is never the victim’s fault. But the remaining male group member wouldn’t budge. What if a girl was drinking, he argued, and went on to list other conditions for shared blame.

“I just wanted to throw a book at his head,” she said. “Not even the fact that he said that, just that he needs to say that in private, because you don’t know who you’re hurting when you say something like that.

“That kind of stuff cuts you like a knife.”

***

An on-campus group of about 20 students is trying to change the victim-blaming culture. Raising Awareness of Interactions in Sexual Encounters, or RAISE, gives presentations to educate student groups about sexual communication.

The biggest part of the presentation is a sketch of a sexual assault between two fictional characters, Tom and Amanda.

Five female and two male students sat in the audience for one of RAISE’s presentations. RAISE Co-President Tori Martindale and her male counterpart Grant assumed the identities of Tom and Amanda and told the story of Amanda’s sexual assault.

Amanda was a freshman and Tom was a junior. Tom was throwing a house party, and they were both drunk. They started talking, headed downstairs to Tom’s bedroom and made out on his bed. Tom reached for the button on Amanda’s pants. Amanda said no.

“I stopped trying to take off her pants and just put my hand down ‘em,” Tom said.

Tom unzipped his pants. He pulled aside Amanda’s underwear.

“No, Tom,” she said. “No, Tom, stop it. We need to stop.”

But Tom didn’t stop, and they had sex. Shortly after, they headed back upstairs to the party.

“Maybe I should have screamed or tried to hit him, but I don’t think I really wanted to believe this was happening,” Amanda told the audience.

The audience asked questions to clarify the incident. How many times did Amanda say no? Why did she go downstairs? Did Tom think he raped her? Was Amanda drunk?

The presentation stopped. Tori and Grant asked for a show of hands — who thinks it’s a sexual assault? Six out of seven audience members raised their hands.

Who thinks it’s only Amanda’s fault? No one raised a hand. Who thinks it’s only Tom’s fault? Blank stares ahead. No one’s hand moved.

Who thinks Amanda and Tom share the blame? Audience members exchanged glances. Heads started to nod. A wishy-washy hand went up, fuchsia-polished fingernails tilting back and forth.

“I think maybe she should’ve done more.”

“Maybe she should speak up.”

“But, she did. She did say no,” Tori said. “And, no matter how she said it, he heard it. No means no. There’s nothing more that she should’ve done or could’ve done to avoid that situation.”

Tori explained to the audience that they’ve engaged in victim blaming. That they said it was Amanda’s fault because Amanda could’ve done more to prevent the assault.

Someone rarely says Amanda deserves all the blame, but audience members commonly believe Amanda and Tom share the blame.

RAISE needs a male and female to do the presentation, but they only have one male presenter. RAISE Co-president Kelsey Britt said some sexual assault education can demonize men. Although their skit involves a male assaulting a female, RAISE wants everyone to receive their message, regardless of gender.

They’ve had a few presentations get ugly. Audience members have said vulgar things or didn’t take the presentation seriously.

Female audience members have blamed Amanda. Tori and Kelsey said it’s a defense mechanism.

The audience’s gender mix makes a difference. Mostly female audiences buffer against rude comments, because they often feel more personally affected by sexual assault, Tori and Kelsey said.

They repeated statistics Melloan cited: one in six women will be sexually assaulted — one in four during college years — and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted. Several sexual assault advocacy groups and government agencies, including the United States Department of Justice, cite similar statistics.

Kelsey and Tori know they’re never going to eradicate sexual assault. They said the best they can hope for is to improve communication between sexual partners and increase awareness around campus about issues related to sexual assault.

“It’s such a widespread problem, and the roots of it are just so deep in our society,” Kelsey said.

“You can feel kind of powerless,” Tori said. “Like you can’t fix it.”

In each presentation, they teach bystander intervention techniques: distracting the aggressor, directing a victim to resources, letting a victim choose his or her course of treatment.

“It’s not just the two people who are having the interaction,” Tori said. “There’s this thing going on this whole year about Culture of Care, and it’s about us taking responsibility for other people to make sure everyone is happy, healthy and safe.”

***

She — the IU senior — has a piece of paper with a number on it. The number corresponds to a box sitting in Bloomington Police Department’s storage. The box is her rape test kit. It’s filled with Brandon’s silver watch, pictures of the physical damage he did to her and her recollections of what happened.

She had a tough time relating to her male friends after the rape. She has drifted away from her closest male friend. Every time she brings it up, he falls silent and changes the topic of conversation.

She divided the men in her life in two groups: they were compassionate if she told them, or they were in the “you could be rapists, too” group.

She emphasized over and again that her judgments aren’t fair. She knows not all men are rapists. But Brandon seemed fine. What’s stopping another normal-looking guy from being a rapist?

Six months after the rape, while talking to a friend one night outside a party, one of her male friends overheard her discussing the rape.

He called her every day for a week to check on her. He still calls occasionally to ask how she’s doing. He told her he wished he knew sooner.

“That made me feel like it was okay to have men back in my life,” she said. “And, maybe they’re not all people who won’t understand.”

Nearly 17 months later, the all-consuming downward spiral has slowed, and she has days when she can get up, go to work and run errands. Therapy helped immensely. She’s still struggling with classes, but not as badly as she did in the immediate aftermath. She’s comfortable around and comforted by her male friends.

She’s not sure if she’ll tell more people in her life. She’s afraid she’ll be looked at differently or interrogated.

“I do wish society was different,” she said. “Because there are times I’m mad he’s out there.”

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