What many accept is unacceptable

As a professional queer activist its part of my job to educate myself and others on difficult social issues. I want to use this months column to tackle one that is near to my heart and has been weighing on my mind heavily lately – the issue of rape culture.

Rape culture is the tendency of our society to tell people not to be sexually assaulted, instead of not to sexually assault.

This concept entered the national discourse recently during many high-profile sexual-assault cases. Of particular note was the Stanford rape case, where the victims’ letter to her attacker made headlines and inspired others to share their own stories. The bravery of these survivors cannot be overstated; they choose to open up about the trauma they were subjected to when assaulted, only to be re-traumatized by the justice system, the media, and our culture itself.
A cultural myth surrounds sexual assault. The word “rape” likely conjures an image of a vulnerable young woman, alone at night. Our mental victim is preyed upon by an attacker who lunges from the shadows. Or, you may think of the same young woman, alone at a party. She drinks too much and wears too little. When she accuses a star athlete or beloved community member of violating her, you know it can’t be true.

Statistically, these scenarios are not characteristic of most assaults. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 6 in 10 sexual assault victims said that they were assaulted by an intimate partner, relative, friend or acquaintance. Further, the small minority of false rape reports should not lead rational people to immediately discredit any accusation.

We must challenge reflexive victim blaming. When assaults are reported, whether they fit into predefined narratives or not, our focus should be on empathy for the victim instead of assigning blame.

Whether by a stranger or a friend, rape is an act of violence and invasion. No matter what a person wears, where they go, alone or with friends, sober or drunk, no one, ever, asks to be sexually assaulted.

When a crime is committed, we look for an answer in justice. We need to establish for one another that the first part of justice is to simply listen, not to doubt or assign blame. Our job as a community is to create space where survivors feel safe sharing their stories and leaning on one another.

Choosing empathy instead of doubt creates a culture that says, “you are safe, you are believed, and you are not to blame.” The rest is in the hands of people better equipped to judge than you or I.

Justice must begin with a culture of trust.

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