The need for rape victims to be “perfect” hurts all survivors

Crossposted from DemocraticDiva.com

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By now you’ve probably read or heard about the roundly excoriated Rolling Stone article examining the problem of rape on college campuses. They focused on the University of Virginia and on one victim in particular, Jackie, who told a shocking story of being gang-raped after accompanying a man on a date to a frat party. Unfortunately, writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely made some serious errors in her reporting, chief among them failing to vet some of the details of Jackie’s claims, such as the fraternity where she alleges her attack took place and the employment of the young man at the center of the account at the pool where Jackie was a lifeguard.

I will not be joining the chorus of voices declaring it to be a settled matter that Jackie fabricated the entire thing since she continues to maintain that she was assaulted and her roommate at the time also insists that she was. Human memory is notoriously faulty about mundane things and a traumatic experience can cause a person to be more, not less, likely to have a poor recollection of events.

I know that from first-hand experience. I was a lawyer before becoming a journalist, and I worked with refugees and other trauma victims. That taught me that it is incredibly difficult for traumatized people to tell an accurate story, even if they are trying to do so. There are many reasons for this. In severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder can cause memory loss, or make the true details of stories too painful to recount. One client of mine would shut down physically when asked to recount certain events, falling into a narcoleptic sleep mid-sentence. Another time, a woman I was interviewing about her sexual assault suffered a mental break and regressed to childhood, begging me to bring her to her long-dead mother.

Even in less severe cases, people’s stories often contained errors or omissions. Dates would be wrong. Sometimes people would mistakenly name the wrong group as being responsible for persecuting them. Clients would focus on some facts and leave out others. All of that could easily have been reason to doubt the entire story, but when I checked the fundamental facts involved against other evidence — medical records, news stories, sometimes even the accounts of the perpetrators themselves — they would turn out to be true.

Clearly, the fault lies with Rolling Stone for not doing their due diligence and not with Jackie for being unable to recall, perfectly, an event she alleges to have happened two years ago after which she did not press charges and then became severely depressed. And because I don’t think the staff of RS are a bunch of terrible people spinning lies to get eyeballs, I’m going to offer my own theory on why they were so enamored of Jackie’s story as opposed to the many other accounts from UVa students claiming they were assaulted. It emerges in the very first paragraph of the article:

Sipping from a plastic cup, Jackie grimaced, then discreetly spilled her spiked punch onto the sludgy fraternity-house floor. The University of Virginia freshman wasn’t a drinker, but she didn’t want to seem like a goody-goody at her very first frat party – and she especially wanted to impress her date, the handsome Phi Kappa Psi brother who’d brought her here. Jackie was sober but giddy with discovery as she looked around the room crammed with rowdy strangers guzzling beer and dancing to loud music.

Jackie claimed to be sober. It’s not hard to see why the writer would latch onto that aspect of her story since it is probably difficult to find campus rape victims (or those in any environment teeming with unchaperoned teens and young adults) who had not consumed alcohol or drugs, willingly or not. Drunk or drugged victims are assumed to be unreliable witnesses at best, and often culpable in their own assaults if they voluntarily indulged.

If you don’t believe that consider Megan Carpentier’s gobsmacking account of being sexually assaulted by a man who broke into her home.

At least, I am not a victim of sexual assault according to the commonwealth of Virginia. Jesus Rivera, aka Vladamir Marroquin-Rivera, pleaded guilty to just two charges on 29 July 2008: one count of misdemeanor unlawful entry and one count of felony cocaine possession. He was released from the state’s custody four months to the day after the police rushed into my apartment and found this man as he masturbated into my underwear while I stood there, sobbing.

Do I have to tell you what preceded that injustice for you believe that I was sexually assaulted? Should I have to tell you about hearing something go bump –bump bump thump – in the night, about this man holding me up by my armpits and marching me around like a Raggedy Ann doll into my own bedroom until I cracked my shins on the bed frame? About saying no – no no no, over and over again – as I tried to squirm away, about trying to reason with my attacker to stop, or about how he looked right through me, like I wasn’t making any noise at all?

Do you need me to show you where the bad man touched me for you to believe my story?

I know – like most victims of sexual assault know – that it might not matter, that you still wouldn’t believe, even if I did tell you all of those terrible, terribly private and violating things and more (and maybe especially if I told you more). I told all of the things to the cops at my apartment and, heaving, wrote them down for two more cops in a dark, quiet room at Inova Fairfax Hospital while waiting for the nurse to come to perform my rape kit. I told them to a detective the following week at a long table in a bright conference room at the police department. I told the terrible things to two female prosecutors later that spring when I was 30 years old and, when I finished, they asked me, “How do you know you didn’t invite him in?”

The prosecutors explained to me that I wasn’t a very good victim: I had been drunk, I had been out with a group of male friends the night before, I had a “complicated” social life, I didn’t remember everything clearly enough. Rivera’s lawyer, they told me, would argue that I’d invited him in, even though the cops found his fingerprints on the screen pried off my kitchen window and on the windowsill inside my home. His lawyer, they said, would try to convince the jury that he’d just been a good Samaritan, helping a drunk woman get to bed.

So, ladies, if you’ve been drinking and aren’t a virgin you can be raped in your own damn home by a stranger who broke in and left evidence of having done that and won’t be considered enough of a “good victim” for the prosecutors to pursue justice for you. (I’m generally loath to give advice to rape victims but Carpentier’s piece makes me break from that: If you have been sexually assaulted, get your own lawyer if you possibly can. Do not count on the state prosecutor to look out for your interests.)

Because everything is so heavily weighted against rape victims to begin with, it might be tempting to seek out the most “perfect” victim you can find to call attention to the problem of rape but that does not make it a good idea to do that. Survivors tend to be imperfect people who do perfectly normal things, like drink and have sex lives. Sex workers, who generally don’t find much sympathy in the general public, experience the highest rates of sexual assault. So when the story of the “perfect” sober victim has discrepancies, what does that mean for her less-than-perfect counterparts?

Jackie says that she wanted to be taken out of the RS story. If that is true, then they should have taken her out of it then and there. There was no point in pressing her when there were so many other victims who had their own stories to tell.

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