(WOMENSENEWS)– What happens when the public and media re-victimize women or men who are sexually abused or raped? Well, and I know the answer personally, it says to the victim, "Welcome to the second worst nightmare of your life."
As a female combat veteran of Iraq suffering from military sexual trauma, or MST, I have first-hand experience with the culture of "victim blaming" or the "second assault."
When a soldier reports rape he or she is forced to navigate hell in an (often futile) attempt to win justice. This makes it very tempting to trade any search for justice to save your reputation and protect your personal safety. And as we know, bailing on legal justice is not just a temptation for soldiers, but for all sexual assault victims.
I knew and served with an introverted and shy 19-year-old female soldier who was raped by another, more senior, soldier in her unit. The predator was married and would, in front of our entire unit, address all females under his command as "whores" and "sluts."
When she turned to her commanding officers for help they threatened to charge her with adultery, telling her it must have been "consensual." In the military even if you are not married you can be charged with adultery if you sleep with a married soldier. So she backed off, but was soon transferred out of the unit, while the rapist eventually received his obligatory slap on the wrist. The rapist was assigned to 45 days extra duty and 45 days loss of pay. This was the only punitive action taken against him.
Of the many "blame the victim" statements I heard during this episode, the one that stuck with me was when the commanding officer told another, "She is going to ruin his career. He’s been in the army for a long time and is close to being able to retire, and this girl thinks she can just rob him of that?"
That same tender urge to protect the perpetrator is also prevalent in civilian rape cases, of course. But there can be some key distinctions between what civilian and military rape victims suffer in the way of being blamed.
For instance, in the case of this young woman’s assault, what I didn’t hear was, "She deserved it because she was wearing those skimpy desert camo pants and shirt, along with her helmet and body armor."
I was raped in Iraq during a time my unit was regularly engaged with the enemy. When I told my commanding officer about what happened to me he actually rolled his eyes at me, as if that was not the time or place for such a trivial topic. He then told me I was being "overly sensitive."
Being raped was a nightmare come real. But nearly as terrifying was having almost everyone in my living and working circle turn on me when they found out I reported it. Every last shred of personal safety felt as though it had been ruthlessly stripped from me. I was in a combat zone. I was shunned for the rest of my deployment. The men with whom I fought side-by-side– who knew my dedication to the fight–suddenly treated me like I was less than trash.
Why do people turn on rape victims?
During the 1960s, Dr. Melvin Lerner, a renowned social psychologist, championed his Just World Theory, which suggests humans have a need to believe the world is a fair and just place, and we get what we deserve. For instance, if your house is blown away by a tornado you deserved it because you chose to live in a storm-prone location. Or, if you are a single mother who works at McDonald’s making $9 an hour, you deserve it because poor people like you are lazy.
Bad things only happen to bad people is another way to define Lerner’s theory. Americans have a deeply ingrained belief that "you reap what you sow," and in such a sexually charged society, it’s so easy to blame the female who was simply dressed for the summer weather. Lerner believed blaming the victim is not cultural, but instead an ingrained defense mechanism to cope with an unjust world when we want to believe so much that it is just.
Children Impacted Too
Perhaps the worst aspect of re-victimization is that we have allowed it to infect our youngest, our children.
When a celebrity such as Rihanna is victimized kids post on Twitter that she must have done something bad to deserve being beaten. If that doesn’t terrify you for the fates of your daughters, you need to open your eyes. If children believe one of their role models "deserved" to be beaten, then they will also believe they deserve beating too, if it happens to them.
We have to change the underlying belief system. It should start with the lawmakers, because it is the only way to change a system that was founded on the false premise that bad things only happen to bad people. Rape cannot be hidden in the guise of innocent mistakes made by fundamentally good people who were led astray by the victim.
Let me explain something. I never "had it coming." I never "asked for it." I was in uniform for crying out loud! I was not drunk or stoned. I was not flirting with anyone.
But all that is also beside the point. Getting buzzed on alcohol isn’t asking to be raped. A short skirt is not consent for rape. Rape is not the result of "boys being boys." Rape is a crime and reprehensible.
Rape puts the Just World Theory on its head. The predator was in control of his or her actions. Not the opposite way around. As much as Americans are conditioned to believe it, "she" didn’t "ask for it."
To the survivors I have this message. What happened to you was not your fault! Nothing you did or didn’t do had the power to make the assailant attack you. You have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to feel guilty about and this doesn’t make you less of a person. You aren’t an object. You are a survivor and you don’t have to be afraid.
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