* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
We must recognize that rape culture exists only because we let it
Andrea Powell is an advocate for survivors of human trafficking and the founder of @KaranaRising & @FAIR_Girls
I am a survivor of sexual assault and the founder of an organization that has helped more than 1,000 young women survivors of sex trafficking find their power and heal past the trauma.
In 2012, I met and advocated for Nicole, a then 21-year-old survivor of sex trafficking who was viciously sexually assaulted by a notorious serial rapist who almost killed her just a few miles from the White House.
Nicole’s rapist believed he could get away with raping women in the sex trade because, should they come forward, no one would find a woman in the sex trade “credible” in her accounts of being raped.
No one would come looking for them either, he seemed to think. Despite having worked with three of the young women who testified against this serial rapist, I do not know how many women he raped. I do know that he was wrong about Nicole.
I have heard the litany of questions asked of survivors that often include “why wouldn’t she just call the police?,” or “why didn’t’ she leave sooner?,” and the classic “what she was wearing?” What was Nicole wearing that night? The clothes she was raped in.
Rape culture focuses us on the impact that a sexual assault allegation has on the rapist rather than their victim. This is despite the fact that 1 in 5 women in America have experienced sexual assault.
“Himpathy” - a term coined by author Kate Manne for the sympathy given to men accused of sexual assault - was a strategy used by the attorneys defending Nicole’s rapist, whose own wife was pregnant at the time. They juxtaposed this tactic with that of a line of questioning that directly implied Nicole and the other women survivors were simply not raped?? SHOULD THERE BE A “NOT” THERE by virtue of their own actions and location. This is similar to the way in which university professor Christine Blasey Ford was interrogated when she testified before the Senate to her account of sexual assault involving now U.S. Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. This included questions centered on what she was wearing, why she was at a party with men, and whether or not she drank.
The survivors of sex trafficking I know were sexually assaulted on average five times a night. That is about 150 sexual assaults a month. On average, they were sold for four years before getting help. Sex trafficking is serial rape for profit.
The majority of these survivors did not want to speak with the police because they feared retribution and shame. Many reported crimes months or years later and then every facet of their life, past and present, went under a social test to gauge their credibility. It seems that society wants to see if they played a role in their own victimization because if they are to blame, we don’t have to listen.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center about two to 10 percent of reports of sexual assault are false while 63 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. If your friend says she was robbed, do you wonder if she is making it up? Do we conduct studies of false reports of armed robbery because we are so worried about the potential impact on the “alleged” robber’s future?
There is no such thing as a perfect victim but how do we get closer to get to a place as a society where we do not demand such an impossible standard in order to be unprejudiced listeners?
First, we need to educate both boys and girls about the realities of sexual assault. We need to give them the tools to be responsive bystanders. Second, we need to call out factors of rape culture when we see it and not tolerate it. Third, we need more resources for survivors who are at risk due to trauma, their past histories of sexual abuse, homelessness, or other key factors.
We must recognize that rape culture exists only because we let it.