Friday, January 9, 2009

The Rape Trail: America Doesn't Get it

By Kristen J. Tsetsi, Stacey A. Silliman, and Laura F. Alix
Published: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:09 AM EDT

No one says to a mugging victim, “Well, you did have your wallet with you.” When someone is carjacked, no one says, “You should have expected it; you were in your car.”

Why is it, then, that when a woman is sexually assaulted, she’s asked, “Were you drinking?” or “Why were you walking there?”

After Melissa Bruen, editor of UConn’s The Daily Campus, wrote an account of her own sexual assault over Spring Weekend — during which her attempts to fight off one of the men was reportedly met with, “My, aren’t we feisty tonight?” — an opinion column in the Journal Inquirer by Managing Editor Chris Powell asked, “Is it really ‘blaming the victim’ to note that there will always be predators and that to get drunk and hang out with thousands of other drunks looking to lose their inhibitions is to ask for trouble? Is it really ‘blaming the victim’ to wonder whether someone who is about to receive a university degree should have learned as much by now?”

Powell suggests Bruen should have known better than to walk home on what’s infamously known as “The Rape Trail.” He suggests that the name itself should cause people — presumably women, as they’re the most frequent rape victims — to “wise up.”

Yes, that’s blaming the victim. The victim is blamed when her judgment is called into question, and the action of her attacker is not.

Bruen’s top was yanked down by a second attacker, who then grabbed her breasts and said, “You think that was assault?”

And she should have known better?

When a woman is sexually assaulted, the male attackers are often left out of the discussion — as if they’re little more than bystanders, or simple animals with no self-control.

Maybe they are.

After all, Bruen was “breaking the rules.” She admitted she had been drinking that evening. She said she was wearing a tube top, clothing most wouldn’t consider modest. And she was alone — albeit surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of her fellow students — on the night of her assault, while walking “The Rape Trail.”

When the victim of an assault admits she wasn’t following the rules, doubt is cast, and people wonder what she could have done to prevent the assault.

But you can do everything “right” and become the victim of an assault. And you can do everything “wrong” and remain unscathed.

Rather than focusing on what women should be doing to avoid being attacked, it’s time we devise a set of rules to teach young men:

• If a woman is drunk, don’t rape her.

• If a woman is unconscious, don’t rape her.

• If a woman is walking alone at night, don’t rape her.

• If a woman is wearing a short skirt, don’t rape her.

To put it as simply as possible, there’s never a time when rape or sexual assault is justified or understandable.

And while we disagree with Powell that Bruen should “wise up,” we do agree with his assertion that the university should try everything in its power to prevent the drunken debauchery of Spring Weekend each year.

Other schools in other states, notably the State University of New York at Cortland, have gained injunctions against student parties like Spring Weekend that can lead to assaults like the one described by Bruen. The school took action, with the help of then New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, to eliminate what was called the Block Party, a public nuisance and safety hazard for students.

In addition to preventing the yearly spectacle of Spring Weekend, however, UConn should think about how it responds to sexual assault or rape claims. Instead of wondering why a woman would wander down a trail by herself, we should ask why there are places on a state university’s campus nicknamed after violent crimes. Why is there not a consistent effort to root out and eliminate these places — where women are afraid to go without protection, and where violent men feel they have a safe haven?

The Connecticut Law Enforcement Agency Uniform Crime Report notes that in 2006 there were 18.1 rapes per 100,000 people in the state compared to 3.1 murders per 100,000 people.

The United States has the highest rate of rape among countries that record those statistics. It is four times higher than Germany, 13 times higher than England, and 20 times higher than Japan, according to a Web site for a University of Rochester based group Men Against Sexual Assault.

More than 40 years ago, one of our mothers was wearing a nonprovocative sweatshirt and jacket when a man dragged her into an alley and threatened to rape her.

Why, even in 2008, are women still told that our behavior or clothing is somehow directly responsible for the reprehensible behavior of otherwise rational males? Why is attention not focused on what’s behind their independent and conscious decision to molest, attack, overpower, humiliate, and violate their victims? Why are we asking, “Was she walking alone or drunk?” and not, “What the hell was he thinking?”

We must impress upon the young that sexual assault is unquestionably unacceptable. We must do it so successfully that by the time they’re adults, if a woman is sexually assaulted, the first question, the only debate, will center on the attacker and his behavioral defect.

Kristen J. Tsetsi, Stacey A. Silliman, and Laura F. Alix are staff writers for the Journal Inquirer.

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