I’m certainly not saying anything new when I say that among the most troubling parts of the situations being revealed at Penn State and Syracuse is the silence of people who should have known better when faced with allegations of the sexual abuse of a child. The revelations from Syracuse this week that the (former) police chief knew that an accusation had been made in 2002 and did nothing to investigate only add to the sense of disbelief many people feel – how can people charged with protecting public safety so willfully disregard the safety of children? While the investigations, not just of the alleged crimes, but also of the failures to intervene, to report, to investigate, to care, need to continue, I think a fair measure of cultural soul-searching is also called for.
That colleges and universities ignore, discourage reporting of, or outright cover-up sexual assault and sexual abuse accusations is hardly news to SAFER. We’ve spent more than a decade helping students fight to get their campuses to develop a culture of doing the right thing when it comes to sexual assault, so we know how hard it is. We know how much silence there has been, and how hard it has been for survivors. By coincidence, Syracuse’s first basketball game since Bernie Fine was fired was against Eastern Michigan, which gained some notoriety a few years ago when they were slapped with the largest fine levied to date against a university for its failures to comply with basic campus safety laws. EMU lied to the campus community about the death of a student who had been raped and murdered on campus, knowing that the assailant was most likely another student, for two months.
Many factors allow this behavior, and I want to explore a few of them, because I don’t believe that university presidents or coaches or police chiefs are unusual in their willingness to turn a blind eye to sexual abuse. I think that we all run the risk of being like them, and while that does not in any way absolve them of blame, it does obligate us to question ourselves. We all need to think through now what we would do if someone told us they had been raped, so that we are ready to do the right thing when it happens. What that right thing is may depend on the situation (any accusation of sexual abuse of a child should be promptly reported to the police – depending on your job and your state, not doing so could be a crime in and of itself), but start with believing the survivor who is talking to you.
1) Suspicion of accusers. We have whole boatloads of false cultural tropes around the idea that people (especially women) lie about being raped – people throw “Duke lacrosse” at us all the time as if those two words somehow conclusively proves that there is no rape on college campuses – even though research funded by the US Department of Justice suggests that the false reporting rate for sexual assault is lower than it is for some other crimes, and that when false reports are made they almost never involve an identified assailant known to the survivor.
Where do these cultural tropes come from? Most rapists are men, men have historically controlled our media, and still largely do, and (see point 2 below) people in power tend to believe and support other people like them in power more often than not.
Sexual predators also deliberately prey on those least likely to be believed – the Penn State case has drawn national attention to these kinds of behaviors, where vulnerable children without strong support networks and from the kinds of class backgrounds looked down on or belittled by many Americans are sought out by predators. In adult cases, in addition to targeting women whose race or class may isolate them on campus, predators also look for those struggling with mental illness or substance abuse or a history of being abused – and then will use those challenges to undermine survivors’ accusations if they do report.
Moreover, being abused or assaulted can create mental health challenges that cause behaviors that we then interpret as reducing an accuser’s “credibility.” To cope with the stress of an attack, your mind can suppress some or all of the memories of the event for varying lengths of time. Being assaulted can lead to low self-esteem, substance abuse, depression, and other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It can take survivors months or years to face what happened to them and to have the courage to report it, and they may not remember all the details fully when they do.
I think there is also a, very human, desire to distance ourselves from these kind of horrific events. “If it could happen to him it could happen to me or my child” is a very scary thought, so we create reasons why that couldn’t be the case, reasons that push blame onto the survivor and distinguish “them” from “us.” He wanted it. She was drunk. He’s just seeking attention. She’s making it up to cover up for her bad behavior. Unacceptable, but an understandable impulse we all have to challenge within ourselves.
Much uglier, and almost as deep, however, is the sexism and homophobia that undergird so many of the dismissals of accusations of sexual violence. Far, far too many people, sometimes consciously, more often unconsciously, treat women and gay men as unreliable narrators of their own experiences. They cling to ideas of (straight) men being more truthful than women, of women and gay men “crying rape” vindictively or for attention, of women and gay men “leading him on” or “giving mixed signals.” Our cultural homophobia and sexism runs deep enough that too often we push these stereotypes onto abused children, as seems to have happened at Penn State and Syracuse, and in plenty of other instances as well.