Let’s understand — and help other people understand — that this is our problem, everyone’s problem, not just the problem of a few.
There’s an epidemic afoot, and it is catching. Unlike other communicable diseases, no matter on which side of the vaccination issue you find yourself, no injection will save you.
It is an epidemic of silence around sexual assault, and it is characterized by two factors:
- The silence of victims
- The silence of those who know the victims or know the perpetrators
Was “Jackie” in the Rolling Stone article A Rape On Campus really gang raped? Perhaps we’ll never know. I was, though, and I think the Rolling Stone debacle fuels the epidemic of silence, and has long-range importance to us all, regardless of our gender or whether we, personally, have been sexually assaulted or not.
Sexual assault isn’t limited to one gender; it occurs to both men and women. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) estimates that the number of people who have suffered rape or sexual assault is 1 in 6 US women and 1 in 33 men in the US. I personally think the actual numbers are much higher. Global victims’ advocacy group Take Back The Night agrees; they say 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men worldwide experience sexual violence. I travel the country sharing my story and offering commentary on the national news about how people can move on and heal after challenges including rape. Each time I do, people line up to share their stories, which invariably begin with some version of, “I’ve never told this to anyone before …”
In working first-hand with hundreds of survivors, one fact emerges: in order to move on they need to be able to speak candidly about what happened. Many require seeing justice served, and ensuring that their attackers face justice. This can never happen if survivors feel it’s unsafe for them to break their silence. That is now much more likely to happen due to fallout surrounding the Rolling Stone article and the subsequent lawsuit by Phi Kappa Psi.
To be clear, when A Rape On Campus was first published last December, I was thrilled. The article’s publication came on the heels of the release of the Ray and Janay Rice elevator video and The Washington Post’s piece on the rape allegations against Bill Cosby. Victims of sexual assault were coming out of hiding and telling their stories in record numbers, and the tide seemed to be changing for the better, as those stories were being heard, listened to, and even acted upon.
And then it all went south. What could have made a profound positive difference in the lives of survivors — and those in their lives — was about to have the opposite effect.
Inconsistencies were found in the Rolling Stone piece; then the feeding frenzy began. The voracity with which people went after discrediting the specific particles of the article seemed inexplicable to me. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not naïve enough to believe that everything I read in print is true, and I’m also not advocating the spreading of lies, inaccuracies, or half truths by the media or anyone else. I’m addressing the rapacious way that the article was dissected and attacked. A nerve had been struck, and people were striking back because of it. It was as if somehow people could discredit the article, the rape issue would go away, or better yet: it never happened in the first place. The overwhelming collective response seemed to be akin to, “So you were raped, huh, Jackie? Prove it!” Problem is, even if the specifics of A Rape On Campus were altered, amalgamated, or even fabricated entirely, it’s still no secret that rape and gang rape occurs on campus and elsewhere all the time. How often is “all the time”? According to RAINN, those violent acts occur every 107 seconds. Ignoring or attempting to discredit numbers that large is done at our own peril. Unfortunately the way in which the Rolling Stone story was discredited — not simply the fact that it was discredited — will likely force victims of sexual assault back into hiding. And that would be a real problem for us all.
We, each of us, know victims of sexual assault. Chances are we know them very well, and we are related to them, even though we may not know that’s the case. They are our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our partners, our family members. Many of them are silently suffering, as are we, by virtue of our relationship with them, because we become “secondary survivors.” Secondary survivors often experience rage, self-blame, alienation, abandonment, lack of intimacy, guilt, depression, feelings of helplessness and a hunger for revenge. The bottom line: there’s no statistically possible way that each of us can remain untouched by the pandemic of sexual assault and violence.
Another tragedy of the A Rape On Campus mess is that it perpetuates the culture of victim-blaming. The Associated Press states that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner “took a combative tone, saying that despite the magazine’s failures, ‘Jackie’ was also responsible.” Look, we all make mistakes in life; we’re human. When that happens, the right thing to do is to stand up, take full accountability, and fulfill whatever reparations necessary to make up for the damage we’ve caused. In feigning to take responsibility, all the while shifting the blame to “Jackie,” Wenner demonstrates the same flippant disregard that his magazine displayed in publishing A Rape On Campus in the first place. Wenner should have shouldered the blame himself. Rolling Stone has broad shoulders; teenage rape victims do not.
I know from firsthand experience. As a teenager, I left behind my family’s horse ranch in the mountains of rural Colorado for the bright lights of Paris, with nothing more than an over-packed suitcase and a dream. My mind was bent on solving one problem alone: how do I stay here forever? When I was abducted by two criminals who brutally beat and raped me, I became faced with solving a much bigger problem: how do I survive?
I did survive. How I did it was by not telling anyone what happened. I could barely function as it was; the initial physical pain soon gave way to an emotional pain and mental anguish which were unimaginable to me. I thought that if I ever told anyone they would condemn me for having made the stupid decision to go with the men; I thought people would judge me; they’d think I was dirty, disgusting, and ruined. After I fled from the men — who chased me through a city and country in which I was a stranger — I jumped on a train with what little belongings I could carry. I never went to the police; I never reported the crime. I worried that if I told anyone, they’d castigate me for letting the men walk free. Ultimately, I worried that the act of telling anyone would victimize me a second time, and if that happened, I knew it would send me over an edge from which I’d never return. I was miserable. I realized I had to either fix my life or end it.
It took me nearly two decades to tell anyone what happened in France. By that point I’d put in years of inner work of every sort imaginable, and yet I still was terrified to finally utter the truth.
Understandably, I started out an advocate for women. In the process I realized that one cannot simultaneously champion women and ignore men. Our relationship is a symbiotic one: if women are suffering, men suffer; if men aren’t flourishing, neither can women. Our fates are inexorably linked; we either rise together or we fall together. Good men need good women to thrive and vice versa.
Together, let’s raise our voices and end the silence. Let’s understand — and help other people understand — that this is our problem, everyone’s problem, not just the problem of a few. As Emma Lazarus wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Photo credit: Flickr/Forest Runner