I have to address an issue that was in the media recently. Normally I don’t feel the need to throw my opinion into the mix over pop culture rumors, however it has less to do with pop culture than it has to do with societal issues. There have been so many people who rushed to defend Woody Allen, a man accused by his adopted daughter of molesting her when she was a child. They may defend him because they honestly believe he’s innocent, or maybe they don’t want some of their favorite filmography tarnished by association, or it could be a mix of both. Regardless of the reason, it’s not surprising that so many people are defending him, because that is the culture that has been created in America. I’m not trying to say he is without a doubt guilty, but instead, I want to ask why people are so quick to dismiss the issue (even though he married his other adopted daughter). I was disappointed to hear Barbara Walters, someone I have always admired, defend Woody Allen on the ‘The View’ saying he is a loving father from what she has seen throughout the years (as if abuse would happen somewhere other than behind closed doors). Almost worse than those who are speaking up on his behalf are those who aren’t saying anything at all. Silence from influential people in the entertainment industry is a deafeningly loud proclamation in itself.
However, this is not the first case of American society standing up for those who perpetrate sexual abuse and assault. Recently, during the Steubenville rape trial, two boys were charged with raping a 16-year-old unconscious girl. They proceeded to urinate on her and post pictures online, which ultimately incriminated them. During their trial, many people came to their defense because they are 16-years-old star football players. On CNN, one newscaster said it was “incredibly difficult” to watch these boys with “promising futures” have their lives ruined. Of course, it wasn’t their choice to rape that ruined their lives, but rather the fact that they were being held accountable for their crime. In the coverage there was no mention of what the young female victim might be going through or how it will impact her life. Even with concrete video evidence, she struggled to get support just like many women struggle to be heard amidst allegations of false claims.
Growing up, I learned how to be skeptical of abuse victims by watching everyone else do it around me. Especially in the mass media, I heard constant doubt attached to sexual abuse victims. In light of abuse claims, people would say: “she wants attention” or “she’s not remembering that right” or “he would never do something like that.” I began to question the motives of every person who claimed to have experienced sexual abuse, as if it was something to benefit from. However, research has shown that the amount of false sexual abuse claims are the same as any other crime, which is less than 3% of the cases. Yet, somehow no one doubts the victims of burglary.
From a young age, I was taught not to go outside late at night or dress in a certain way if I wanted to avoid being sexually assaulted. It’s interesting because my husband said he has never in his life been told not to rape someone, meanwhile I was given a rape whistle my freshman year of college. Women are given the responsibility to protect themselves instead of men being taught what is unacceptable. Why not unload the gun instead of shooting at a bulletproof vest? This conditioning taught me that any sexual abuse I received would be directly correlated with my own actions. Basically, it would be my own fault if that ever happened. So naturally, when it did, I took the blame rather than speaking out. I also wondered what was really considered abuse. I felt like my experience was a grey area that may or may not be a crime. Everything I had been taught growing up helped me justify and explain away the actions of my abuser. And even when I wanted to tell someone, I was plagued with doubt that my memories were really my own, or that the whole thing ever happened at all. I caught myself wondering if I had made up my own memories, something society had taught me to do many years before my abuse.
In some cases, where perpetrators are scary, it is easy for the public to villainize the abuser and feel sympathy for the victim. However, in most cases the abuser is a villain disguised by a good name and shining reputation. They hide in plain sight and surround themselves with a community that can vouch for their innocence. It is the little league coaches, the neighborhood babysitter, or a loving step-dad. In the wake of abuse accusations, these victims are immediately seen as guilty (of lying) until proven innocent. Articles written about rape often say the victim “claims” to have been raped. The word “claim” leaves room for doubt in the mind of the reader. When someone is robbed, the articles written about it don’t say they “claim” to have had their property taken. This is something our culture saves solely for sexual abuse and rape crimes, because we have been taught to always be skeptical of the victim. Assuming the abuser is innocent simultaneously implies the victim is lying. It inherently doubts the validity of the abuse.
This culture keeps sexual abuse victims quiet. The US Justice Department estimates that only 26% of rapes and attempted rapes are reported, which means large majorities do not speak up. This is a direct reflection of our culture. It silences the voices of every victim who worries if their story has holes, if they aren’t remembering the details correctly, or if anyone will believe them. The most fragile of victims are forced to defend their stories and their abuse under a microscope. There are countless cases where the victims lose over the reputation of the abuser. Abusers are often given the benefit of the doubt while victims fight to be heard. It is no wonder that most victims never speak up at all.
We need to re-wire our minds when it comes to sexual abuse and assault. I will be the first to admit I have to consciously make an effort to defend victims in my mind because I have spent the past 22 years being told to do the opposite. But I won’t let anyone else tell me what happened to me or trivialize my experience simply because they “can’t know what really happened.” We live in a culture where victim blaming is the norm and more and more people are silenced by it. As a nation, we should stand together in support of the abused because that is the only option. You have to ask yourself if sexual abuse is any less wrong if someone well respected in the community, a football star, or even a famous director does it.