Julia Eckert: Victims Receive Negative Labels and Responses

Many victims of sexual assault do not report because they fear the responses and labels they may receive in response. Part of the reason that many college students are silent after they are sexually assaulted is because colleges and universities fail to teach about date rape. As a result, colleges tend to foster environments that encourage rape culture, double standards for women, heavy alcohol usage at parties, and the tendency of college male athletes wanting to prove their dominance. The cause of the ambiguity of conversation between the rapist and the victim and the fact that consent is not always verbal. For instance, a victim may feel coerced by their assaulter and may not say the words “no” or “stop” even though he or she is unwilling to engage in sexual intercourse. Although you cannot consent while intoxicated, victims are fearful to report the assault if they know they drunkenly agreed. This leaves the victim wondering if they truly consented to sex or not. Because young people are often unsure of exactly what happened during the assault, they are hesitant to report in fear of being labeled a liar. Slut-shaming is another way of blaming and labeling female victims of sexual assault. Meanwhile, men are often admired for having a lot of sex because it is viewed as a validation of their masculinity. This is very effective in discouraging women from speaking out.

Men are praised for having a lot of sex because it means that the man is proving himself masculine by “getting the ladies”. This occurs because of our patriarchal culture where the male is labeled as dominant (and the female is labeled as submissive) so the male is the one who decides the language and belief system surrounding date rape. This means men decide what counts as a date rape and whether the victim should be trusted. This belief system is also present in the military, where female victims are labeled as insane. Another problem that makes women less likely to claim they have been assaulted is that men often expect sex after paying for a date or alcohol and because of societal expectations, women feel obligated. Even if women take precautions such as going out with friends, society still labels them as responsible, effectively muting the victim.

A real-life example of labeling and negative reactions to reports of sexual assault comes from the U.S. military. The military has recently been criticized for labeling female rape victims as crazy as a way to sweep the assault under the rug and rid themselves of the problem. A disproportionate number of women have been diagnosed with personality disorders and then discharged because of reporting sexual abuse. Women make up 16% of the army, but 24% of the personality disorder discharges. The military considers personality disorders as preexisting conditions, so the victim will not even get veteran benefits, as they would if their assault had been labeled a service-related disability. Because of this, women are likely to consider not reporting her assault. The Pentagon has admitted that the number of sexual assault cases that they report is well below the true number of assaults that occur. Officials disclose that of the sexual assault cases that are reported, less than one in four are prosecuted as criminals. The fact that the military is tolerating this type of response to reports of sexual assault furthers women’s’ fears of coming forward.

Victims do not wish to be viewed as weak or attention-seeking by their family, friends, or authorities. Revealing yourself as a victim of assault to family and friends is difficult because there is a wide range of responses that a victim can receive. Victims are fearful that their family will be disappointed in them for putting themselves in the position to be raped, or be angry at them for disgracing the family. On the other hand, some victims worry about burdening their loved ones. They may choose to be silent to protect loved ones from the pain it will cause them. When it comes to the reaction from the community, victims avoid unwanted attention as happens when a scandal occurs. Robert Thornberg, the author of “School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling,” writes about the negative labels that bullies assign to their victims, and how these labels become part of the victim’s identity in their community. These can be labels such as “liar” and “whore” to define the victim as socially unfit. Thornberg’s insight into bullying applies to labeling victims of sexual assault and the impact it has on their public identity. Many women find reporting to be pointless because men are dominant and they do not want to be labeled by the skewed justice system. Men cannot fully understand women’s experiences and therefore do not respond justly. Fear of being doubted silences the victim because it is painful for one to muster up the courage to reveal something so personal and severe and then be doubted by those they disclose to.

These various responses discourage victims from speaking out. When weighing the pros and cons of reporting, many people conclude that the cons of labels and negative reactions outweigh the pros of seeking support and justice. They convince themselves that it is less painful to stay silent. Asking, “Why report sexual assault when it is likely to lead to more feelings of neglect, hatred, and blame?” is a common victim response when asked why he/she is silent. Labeling people as sluts and liars who are responsible for being raped is an effective way to silence a victim. Rape culture is dangerous because it leads to a vicious cycle of committing rape, silencing the victim, getting away with it, repeat. If instead of ignoring the victim, people listened, believed, and supported them, negative labels would shift from the victim to the perpetrator. This would help stop rape culture and create a society that is completely intolerant of sexual assault and encourages victims to speak out.