With the recent publicity regarding the UNC student who has spoken out about her sexual assault, there has been a spotlight on the way that the University has handled her attack, and the consequent discussion that she had led about it. Because she hasn’t used the name of her attacker in her public outcry, it is difficult to imagine why she is being threatened with expulsion for intimidating her nameless attacker. This is a particularly harmful form of victim-blaming, which not only makes victims of sexual assault feel powerless to face an attacker with whom they still have to share a space with, such as a campus environment, but also discourages victims from speaking out when they are assaulted.
It is absolutely true that accusations of sexual assault should never be taken lightly- by those who hear them, or by those who make them. However, it seems that we are culturally attached to this idea that someone accused of sexual assault is the victim of slander until proven otherwise. Though I adamantly believe that no one should be accused of an action they were not responsible for, I ask you to take a look at the statistics before you accuse a victim of crying wolf. According to rainn.org, 54% of cases of rape and sexual assault go completely unreported. Of the cases that are reported, 97% of offenders are NEVER convicted. Already, the odds are intimidatingly stacked against the victim who wants to speak out about his or her assault. There is also a note-worthy stigma facing men who speak up about being assaulted, shaming them for being queer and therefore emasculated for being a victim of a sexual crime.
Given all of that information, consider now the statistics you have heard about the frequency of sexual assault. One in four college women will be assaulted. There are approximately 207,754 victims of sexual assault every year. According to One in Four USA, 35% of men surveyed admitted that they would take advantage of a situation to sexually assault a woman if they knew they would get away with it. We teach women that it is unsafe for them to leave their homes alone, to go for a run at night, to travel alone, to dress too scantily clad, to be too friendly, and to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are willing to believe that women are in constant danger of attack, but are reluctant to believe that they have been attacked when they tell us that the attackers are our friends, family, and classmates. Who, then, do we think the attackers are? There is no club of sexual assailants who meet in dark alleys and prey on girls who “ask for it.” Two-thirds of all sexual assault is committed by someone who knows the victim. We are all part of a culture that accepts and rewards sexually aggressive behavior, and as a result shames and blames victims who speak out about their attacks. Perhaps most telling of all though, is this statistic: of men who had raped someone, 84% said that the action they admitted to doing was definitely not rape. This isn’t due to a communication failure, but a disconnect in what we as a culture label rape.
Calling rape and sexual assault what they are is extremely important. Being able to label an action as less severe than what it is allows the perpetrator of the action to believe that what they are doing isn’t as severe as it is. In light of the publicity facing the University of North Carolina, I encourage everyone to think about what rape is, and why we are so unwilling to believe that the people we know can be associated with it.