Over the last few days, I’ve been sent the New York Times’ latest interactive article on campus sexual assault several times. The article details the error-filled investigation of a rape reportedly perpetrated by star freshman quarterback – and Heisman trophy winner – Jameis Winston. People are (rightfully) outraged and disgusted that Florida State University and the Tallahassee Police Department seem to prioritize their star football team (and revenue generator) over victims of sexual violence and prosecuting violent crimes.
I read the article, and like those who sent it to me, I felt a sense of outrage and disgust. But I also have to say I’m not surprised.
We hear pretty consistently about star athletes who are charged – or at the very least are the subject of an investigation – with sexual assault or domestic violence. On the heels of such charges, there is often an immediate backlash, where fans and others will rush to the defense of said star athlete, examining reports from every angle and largely coming to the same conclusion: She (the victim) is lying.
Are there cases when someone wrongfully accuses another of sexual violence? Sure. Between 2 and 8% of rape reports are false, which is not different from any other violent crime. So why is there such an immense backlash regarding these cases to the point where authorities don’t appropriately investigate a violent crime?
In our culture, athletes are our heroes and we want to see our heroes succeed. They have often overcome adversity, and have worked hard to get on that team or to win that championship. If they’ve been accused of a crime, we want to see them absolved of any wrong doing. When they’ve been charged with a crime, we want to go back to admiring them without the itchy “yeah, but…” thought in the back of our minds. Part of this is tied up in our cultural beliefs about rape and victims; part of it is tied up in our love for heroes and sports.
The NYT article quoted an FSU student who wrote in an email, “All day every day I am bombarded with messages of hatred for the alleged victim,” the woman wrote. “I am sad and ashamed to be part of a student body that is quick to support a man who is accused of sexual assault, simply because he is a good football player, and even quicker to condemn the alleged victim of the crime as a liar.
This woman isn’t merely part of a student body that quickly supports a good football player accused of sexual assault while simultaneously condemning the reported victim. She’s part of a culture guilty of the same thing.
We have to examine our attitude toward young adult female victims of sexual violence. We have to really think about why we’re so quick to say “She must be lying.”
In Maine, sexual assault victim advocates have great relationships with law enforcement both locally and on a statewide level. We have Sexual Assault Response Teams in which law enforcement, victim advocates, and others come together to ensure that victims don’t fall through the cracks in the system. There are organizations working toward broadening our understanding of our cultural response to violence, and what we can do to be supportive of victims.
But a regional team can’t address an issue of culture. Instead, we have to be willing – as individuals, and as a society – to reexamine our beliefs and assumptions about who perpetrates sexual violence, and how victims and community members should respond. It everyone’s responsibility; we all have a responsibility to be engaged in violence prevention and response. We all have an opportunity to say, “Hey, we weren’t there that night” when someone starts talking about how a victim must be lying. We all have an opportunity to say, “Actually, only between 2 and 8% of rape accusations are false.”
And we have to take those opportunities, because if we don’t, who will?