“… Maybe girls should be taught to respect themselves more than to be hanging out with guys and drinking and partying with them.”
When I read that comment on a thread regarding the ongoing alleged rape investigation involving students at Calhoun High School, my jaw dropped.
I was afraid of this. But if I’m going to be completely honest here, I had been expecting — sooner or later — to hear something along those lines. When something horrible happens, especially in a small town where “nothing like this ever happens,” things turn ugly, and people tend to pick sides. And when people pick sides on the sensitive subjects of rape and sexual assault, victim-blaming almost always surfaces in the arguments.
Ever since May 10, the small town of Calhoun has been pulsing with outrage, speculation, fear, disbelief and despair, and for good reason. Those feelings have spilled over to surrounding counties and even other states as more news organizations picked up word on the investigation.
According to numerous news reports, the alleged rape occurred at a prom after-party at a cabin in Gilmer County, where many of the attendees were intoxicated. The victim was hospitalized after the incident with injuries. Gilmer County Sheriff officials said they expect the investigation to wrap up at the end of the week.
Surviving in rape culture
I talk to teens at schools about dating violence as a part of my job. One thing I ask students to get their wheels turning is, “What do you do on a daily basis to protect yourself from being jumped or assaulted?”
“I try not to wear shirts that are low-cut.”
“I avoid eye contact with guys when I walk down the sidewalk.”
“I never go anywhere alone.”
“If I am alone, I walk to my car holding my key like a weapon so I can jab someone in the eye if I have to.”
If she has to. Those are common responses I get from the girls in the classes. But when I ask the guys that same question, I hear crickets.
Why is that? Seriously? Men are victims of crimes too, so why aren’t the guys focused on keeping themselves from being sexually assaulted on a daily basis? It’s because our culture, as reinforced by social norms, the media and pop culture, tells us that it’s OK to objectify women and it’s OK for men to do the objectifying.
We live in a rape culture — a culture where sexual violence and rape is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. And in that rape culture, our focus has become training our young women to protect themselves by minimizing harm they could possibly “bring on themselves.”
We teach them not to dress provocatively, to fear walking by themselves to their cars, to mix their own drinks and then watch them closely at parties. When I was a student at Berry College, I was taught in my Women’s Self-Defense class that if I’m being assaulted, to yell, “Fire!” or “Help, my baby!” because, studies show if you yell “Rape!” people are less likely to come help you.
Don’t get me wrong, these are great tips and could possibly prevent an assault. But why don’t we teach young women that it isn’t their fault if something happens to them while they are wearing a dress, even if it does come up to mid-thigh? Why don’t we focus on empowering them to make their own decisions, and to make them proudly, without having to fear?
There is a difference between young women lacking self-respect and having her self-respect threatened by the perceptions and motives of others.
A few facts
Law enforcement reports that students were drinking at the party in Gilmer County. Are we really surprised? Kids have been drinking behind their parents’ backs in celebration since alcohol has existed, and to pretend otherwise is ignorance.
And is the reason the alleged assault occurred because there was drinking involved? No. Alcohol does not cause the problem, but it does exacerbate it. What role does alcohol have in rape? Is it the victim’s fault if she has been drinking, or if both she and the perpetrator have been drinking? According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, in 1 in 3 sexual assaults, the perpetrator was intoxicated — 30 percent with alcohol, 4 percent with drugs. Seventy-five percent of men and 55 percent of women involved in acquaintance rapes were drinking before the attack, according to “I Never Called it Rape,” by Robin Warshaw.
Alcohol’s role in rape and sexual assault is that it hinders communication, responses and one’s ability to pick up on warning signs, among other things. But it in no way excuses the rapist’s actions and puts the blame on the victim.
Something that people also need to be aware of is that more than two thirds of rapes happen between acquaintances. Of those, 73 percent of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger, 38 percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance, 28 percent are an intimate partner and 7 percent are a relative, according to RAINN. So, unfortunately, the whole there’s-a-rapist-hiding-in-the-bushes line of thinking is the minority of cases. You are much more likely to be raped by someone you know and even trust.
The mind of a rapist
If you’re anything like me, upon hearing the news of the post-prom party incident, you were hit with horror, disgust, anger, sadness and a tornado of other, more hostile emotions. How? How could someone do that to someone they know? Why do people rape people? It’s about power and control.
In past years, rape was thought to be a crime of passion, a result of an uncontrollable sexual desire one experiences because the raped asked for it, was being provocative, etc. But more recent studies debunk those theories, thank God.
In July of 2013, after a woman was gang raped by three men at the 16th Malaysia Games, the media was in a frenzy. Psychiatrist Ong Beng Keat was interviewed in the following months and said the primary motives of rape are power, control and anger.
“The perpetrator may verbally coerce and manipulate his victim,” Ong explained. “He may resort to threats and weapons to overpower the victim. Controlling and victimizing another human gives him a sense of gratification. He has greater tendency to express anger through violence and the use of weapons that are signs of hostile masculinity.”
Staying strong in the aftermath
I’ve heard my share of information regarding the alleged perpetrators in this case, and I don’t care to repeat it here. But I will say this: No means no, and wrong is wrong. I don’t think any sexual act that ended up with a young lady going to the hospital was consensual.
And I don’t care whether the alleged perpetrator or perpetrators are star athletes, straight A students, or even carry little old ladies’ grocery bags for them; they deserve justice. They deserve a fair trial. And if the allegations are true, every single person involved needs counseling and support. In order for any kind of abuser to change, he or she must recognize that within themselves is someone who did something wrong and needs help.
I can’t imagine the gravity of what this young lady will have to go through in the years to come. But as a survivor of sexual assault, I know a little about the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I know what it is like to be at the mall or grocery store and see the back of someone’s head and think “Oh God, it’s him,” and suffer a panic attack, even if the person I saw is a complete stranger. I know the anxiety, the humiliation, the fear. The self-blaming reinforced by the blaming of others. It takes years of counseling, and you never get over it. Like the loss of a loved one, you learn to manage it.
I’m angry. I’m sad. I know I’m not alone in that. This young woman did not ask for what happened to her. And but for the choices of a handful of young men, this lady could have gone home that night, breathless from dancing, slightly buzzed and excited about her upcoming graduation. She could have taken a few aspirin and downed a glass of water to cut the hangover in two. Instead, she got pain medicine from an IV that night.
As a community we have to stand behind her and support her, and not sweep this under the rug. RAINN reports that 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported and 97 percent of rapists never spend a day in jail. So I challenge this community to raise their voices, and educate themselves and their children about sexual violence.
This has to stop.
Lauren Jones is the outreach advocate at the Hospitality House for Women Inc. and a freelance writer.