**Trigger warning - the link below contains a description of a rape that may be triggering. Read with caution.
In the New York Times last week there was a very brave article entitled "Defriending My Rapist." You can and should read the article for yourself at the Opinionator, but the gist of it is this: at the age of thirteen, the author was brutally raped by four boys from her school. Thirty-eight years later, Facebook recommends she friend one of her rapists (the ringleader). Prodded on by curiosity, she does. To find out more about her reactions to this uniquely 21st century situation, I highly recommend you read the entire piece - I will not be able to do it justice here. Suffice it to say, it is a very insightful piece, and particularly instructive for those of us who respond to rape disclosures. The writer, like many young women, blames herself for her own rape: for wearing a low-cut top, for acting more confident than she felt - "With a child’s logic," she says, "I figured the boys thought I wasn’t a virgin because of my sexy shirt." You can hear the subtle chiding in her voice toward her childhood self, for this lapse in logic, this capitulation to rape culture and victim-blaming. Yet later, when she confronts her rapist via a private Facebook message she repeats a similar theme: "I hope that night has haunted you. I was naïve and a virgin." Even after years of therapy, this woman still feels compelled to point out to her rapists that she was not "experienced," that in fact she was a virgin, in effort to convey to him the seriousness of his crime. That our culture of victim-blaming is so pervasive that even survivors themselves fall victim to it should give us all pause. This is a young woman who was held down and raped by four men. She was a virgin. She screamed. She was the textbook definition of everything a society thinks of as a "acceptable" victim of rape (you know, aside from the low-cut sparkly top and the fact that she drank some rum), and yet she still blamed herself because she was wearing a shirt that might have made them assume she wasn't a virgin. Indeed, years later, she uses the fact that she was a virgin to emphasize the severity of the crime to her own rapist.
At thirteen years old, this young woman had been exposed to enough of rape culture to think that she had asked for it (and who can blame her, when so many people's reaction would have been to make note of what she was wearing, of whether or not she had been drinking). She knew enough to not want to tell anyone, because she thought she would be shunned at school (and who can blame her, when so many people's reaction is to say "are you sure you want to ruin those boys' lives by accusing them of rape?"). After thirty-eight years, this woman was brave enough to not only confront her rapist but to write about it for the New York Times. But how many more men and women, young and old, may be suffering in silence under these same assumptions?
Stories like these emphasize the need for programs like BARCC's Community Awareness and Prevention Services program. It is not enough for us to respond to disclosures with empathy and compassion, to help men and women who have been raped or assaulted regain control by empowering them to make decisions regarding their own physical and mental health, to provide them with access to valuable services to help them recover and heal. We must also attack the root of the problem: rapists, and a culture that is permissible of rape. We can see from this story (and from articles like this) that the lessons of victim-blaming are learned young, which means we need to start even younger to combat them. Until we as a community rise up against rapists and not their victims, against the crime of rape and not the circumstances under which it occurs, we all but ensure that terrible stories like this continue to happen. If as CAPS volunteers we can empower one young person to stand up to their friends when they are making rape jokes, or to question the messages they are receiving from their peers and the media, or to intervene when they see someone being targeted or harassed, then we will have done our jobs. If enough individuals stand up against rape culture, we can produce a domino effect to someday ensure that crimes like this do not go unpunished, or at least to make sure that the survivors of these crimes do not feel alone or at fault. No one should have to wait thirty-eight years for that kind of validation.
One more note - social networking tools are making encounters like these far more frequent than anytime B.F. (Before Facebook). Sometimes these encounters can turn out to be ultimately empowering, as in the article above. Other times, particularly for those who do not have the benefit of a solid support system, they can simply be triggering and harmful to the emotional well-being of the survivor. How can we be more attuned to these kinds of encounters happening among our family and friends, and supportive and empowering of someone who might be going through something similar to the author (it happens more often than you'd think!)?
Written by: Alison, a CAPS volunteer