Not Their Fault: Rape Victim Advocacy

This was originally written my sophomore year of HS, 2/11/14. It was a topic I was really interested in finding out more about as a developing writer.

Rape originates from the word rapere which means to steal or seize. Every two minutes somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted, according to a statistic from the Fort Worth Women’s Center. Women and men alike are affected by rape and other cases of sexual assault. The anti-rape movement began in the early 1970s; that’s when the need for resources useful to victims was emphasized and awareness of the issue was raised. The common misconception is that rape is limited to females, however, rape can happen to anyone. The issue of unwanted sex has existed since the beginning of civilization, yet only decades ago were steps taken to help victims.

            Before women gained any rights and were actually respected as human beings in most cultures, they were viewed and treated like property. The first law made against raping women was in thirteenth-century England, but it wasn’t seriously enforced. Since women had no rights in America up until 1920, men didn’t see it necessary to consider sexual assault against a woman a crime. The English writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the first woman to have expressed the way many women in the 1700s felt in her book The Vindication of the Rights of Women. During the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, which resulted from women learning to organize and publicize political protests during the abolitionist movement, feminists signed for the rights of women in their Declaration of Sentiments. However, women of color were not included in this Declaration and, considering prior knowledge of female slaves being gang-raped, this was obviously a problem between races since many of these women supported abolition.

            That aside, some of the first women to “break the silence of rape” were black women in 1866. These years leading up until 1970 were cold times for women. Before 1970, women were afraid to speak out about rape and there were no shelters and help centers for victims. Abortion wasn’t even legal in the United States until 1973 when it became less risky to perform. Rape victim advocates in 1971 were aware of the importance of change for victims whose voices weren’t being heard at an event held at the St. Clement’s Church. According to Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, “in the early 1970s, a small group of women across the US began operating rape crisis hotlines from their home phones.” This was just one step closer to achieving the goals of the anti-rape movement. These Kentucky women also paid their own money for the hotlines and opened their homes because they saw that there was a need for counseling victims of rape in the community. On the other hand, enforcers of the law and staff at jails across the nation are people who are supposed to protect civilians, not violate them. Unfortunately, that was the case of Joan Little who was raped by a jail guard in 1974. She was charged with murdering her rapist with an ice pick, but she was eventually acquitted seeing she had acted in self-defense.

            Similarly, children are often sexually abused by dominant figures. Child victims of rape don’t usually speak out about their experience until years later out of fear and being threatened by the attacker. The following statistics illustrate the sexual danger minors have faced. Rape Victim Advocates of Chicago provide services to about 37% of youth aged 5 to 19 years old. Three out of every twenty rape victims are under the age of twelve and 44% of victims are under the age of 18. In 2000, 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims knew their attacker. Only 7% of perpetrators were strangers to the victim (As reported to Law Enforcement, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 2000). The percent rates of victimized boys are lower than that of girls; 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 3% of boys in the same grades had been sexually abused. In 1995, local CPS agencies identified 126,000 children who were victims of either substantiated or indicated sexual abuse: of these, 75% were girls. Nearly 30% were between the ages of 4 and 7. (US Department of Health and Human Services, 1995)

            After viewing those ghastly statistics on sexual assault of children, let’s look more in depth at this. Child sexual abuse doesn’t happen within a short time or out of nowhere. Usually, it happens over a period of time with typically five phases: engagement, secrecy, coercion, disclosure, and validation. The first phase is usually ‘subtle’ and involves giving things to lure in the child in a seemingly harmless way, such as giving them gifts. The second phase stems from the first, and the attacker tells the child to keep secrets about the abuse and causes the child to feel guilty. The next phase involves an increased amount of sexual abuse, and the attacker starts threatening violence if the child tells others about the sexual abuse and using psychology to convince the young victim that telling others will cause more harm. During the disclosure phase, either the victimized child has told someone about the rape or someone finds out some other way. Lastly, in the fifth phase, the child needs to be assured, believed, and protected from their attacker.

            Some signs that a child has been raped are changes in behavior such as: being moody, depressed, and fearful of being left alone at home. To help the child, it is suggested that the advocate assure him/her that it’s not his/her fault, but not to promise them their parents don’t blame them (the child) for the attack. At times, the child’s parents do blame her/him for the abuse they have received. Due to unwanted negative attention and criticism the child receives from others, he or she may lie to protect the attacker from charges or punishment. Reporting the abuse to local authorities, however, doesn’t promise the victim will be protected. The main focus of advocates in helping child survivors cope and build up self-esteem is teaching them to not expose their bodies and let others know if they’re uncomfortable with being touched, as well as other actions that might cause unease or discomfort.

            After discussing the two most common targets of rape—women and children— the time has come to discuss how men are affected. The common misconception is that men can’t be raped; this isn’t true because they are susceptible to sexual assault just as anyone else. In fact, about 3% of American men have experienced rape at some point in their lives and are also less likely to report sexual assault. Men make up 10% of all victims. Similar to female and child victims of rape, male victims feel that it was their fault or might have agreed in some way to the assault. Some male victims will even go into denial over what happened to them by believing they had just imagined the event. Since men are generally viewed in society as strong and able to defend themselves, those around them say it’s the male victim’s own fault and that he could have avoided the assault.   

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