opinion

COLUMN: Voice for rape victims in court and in our culture



In a courtroom in Concord, New Hampshire, last week a 16-year-old girl burst into tears while being cross-examined about a rape she said occurred at the hands of a fellow student in May 2014, when she was only 15.

St. Paul’s School, a private preparatory school in Concord, is one of the most prestigious and selective schools in the country.

It has produced 13 U.S. ambassadors, a Nobel Prize winner, three Pulitzer Prize winners and numerous other famous, important and powerful individuals.

It is also where the girl, whose name has not been released to the public because she is a minor, reports that she was raped by 
then-senior Owen Labrie, now 19.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, there are approximately 293,000 victims of sexual assault in the United States each year. 68 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to police.

One might ask, if rape and sexual assault are so common — occurring on average once every 107 seconds in the U.S. alone — why don’t more victims come forward and report what happened to them?

The St. Paul’s School case provides a perfect example of why many victims choose to remain silent.

Law enforcement, the court system and the media all contribute to the retraumatization of victims of sexual assault and abuse if victims do decide to come forward.

Law enforcement officers often fail to take such reports seriously, and sometimes engage in victim-blaming, such as suggesting that a victim should not have been in a certain place or dressed in a certain way.

Both law enforcement and the courts are woefully undereducated about sexual assault, rape, abuse and the ways in which trauma can cause a victim’s “inconsistencies” about what occurred.

This is exactly what happened to the girl in the New Hampshire courtroom, who apologized to the defense attorney who questioned her.

“I’m sorry I was cloudy because I was traumatized,” she said.

Victims of crimes such as rape and abuse should never have to apologize for the trauma that was inflicted on them.

Yet they are too often accused of having made up “false allegations” because their stories might appear inconsistent or because they did not report an assault 
immediately.

Just being in a courtroom with her rapist or abuser can make a victim feel anxious, afraid and unsafe.

Imagine trying to recall details from a year ago or more while feeling absolute terror at being in the same room as your attacker.

In the St. Paul’s School trial, unfair jury selection appears stacked in favor of Labrie, rather than the girl who reported that he 
raped her.

The jury consists of 11 men and only three women.

Even the way such cases are reported in the media can reinforce a victim’s perception that no one believes her and that the whole world is against her.

Labrie is an “alleged rapist,” and the 16-year-old is an “alleged victim.”

So-called “men’s rights activists” love to suggest that there is an epidemic of “false accusations of rape,” as though women just wake up and, in a fit of boredom or vindictiveness, decide to 
accuse innocent men 
of rape.

The ordeal endured by real victims, however, shows how patently absurd this 
idea is.

No one would run that kind of gauntlet just for fun or spite.

When a woman comes forward about a rape, she is being incredibly brave.

The least we can do is take her seriously.

With one in six women in the U.S. experiencing 
sexual assault in her lifetime, chances are that many of your friends and classmates have stories like this.

Unfortunately, chances also are that they have remained silent because they know they won’t be believed.

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