Ambiguity of Blame: What keeps undergrads (and everyone else) from reporting sexual assault

One of last week’s hot news topics was sexual assault on college campuses.  I caught a snippet of conversation on NPR’s Diane Rehm’s show “Friday News Round-Up.”  (click here for full transcript:

And this is what caught my attention.  I looked up the transcript to make sure I heard it right.   Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times said, “at the end of that year, one of my daughter’s friends had left school because she had been raped and felt uncomfortable reporting it. It was one of these sort of date rape situations, and she didn’t feel right about reporting it. She simply withdrew and went to another school.”  


And later on, Diane Rehm said about the low report rate:  “Many are afraid, or they don’t want to go public because they feel they’ll be shamed.” 

And I desperately wanted to call in and explain to them:  It’sjust  not that they are worried they will “be shamed.”  It’s not just that they are worried what others will think of them.  It’s not just that they are weak.   It’s that they ALREADY FEEL ASHAMED.  And responsible.  And guilty.  And aren’t sure who IS to blame, but they are pretty sure they carry at least some of the blame.  Is it black and white?  It sure doesn’t feel that way.  It feels much more ambiguous.   Like they had something to do with it.

You know how little kids can feel responsible for their parents’ divorce?  Remember how our brains are designed first for keeping us alive in the next minute?  That makes us brilliant learners; that also leads the brain to assume much more control over life than we possibly can have.   Our brains HATE narratives that make no sense.  We LOVE cause-effect linear logical evidence.  We love it so much, we’ll force the facts to fit that sort of narrative.

When we hear someone was in a car accident – Were they speeding?  Wearing their seatbelt?  Driving a tiny car?  Impaired?  Our brains scramble to figure out why it happened so we won’t repeat their mistake.

Even if they can’t articulate it, kids’ brains know they need their parents in order to survive, and if that care is threatened, their brains try to figure out what they did wrong and fix it so they will get that security and care back.

So, when it comes to sexual assault, we have progressed as a society when it comes to a man or woman being grabbed and sexually assulated at gunpoint by a stranger when they were walking in daylight on a well-travelled city street. No longer do we think it had anything to do with how the victim was dressed, or walking, or what they said, or their sexually history.

Okay, we’re more clear when women are the victims than men.  Male victims of sexual assault are much harder for us to wrap our minds around, because we assume – and the male victim assumes – being a man means if they really didn’t want it, they could have fought off their assailants.

And when it comes to that relatively new category of rape, “date rape?” Well, we’re pretty ambiguous there, too.  And by “we,” I mean especially the victims.  It doesn’t “feel” like a crime.  A crime is when someone breaks down your door to get into  your  house to rob you.  You would never want anyone forcing their way into your  house to steal your expensive electronics!

But what if you had invited them in.  What if you had both been drinking.  What if you were both admiring the cool techno geeky stuff.  (See how much I know about technology!)  And what if you said, “Sure, try it out.”  And then they walked out the door with it, even when you said, “Wait a minute……”  Is that a robbery?

Please do NOT think I am trying to “blame the victim” here.  Instead, I am trying to explain what might be going on inside the victim’s head, keeping him or her from reporting.  (And I HATE the word “victim,” but it’s hard to know what other short-hand word to use for that person who’s been assaulted.)

This is brain logic:  I must have done something to end up here, and if I can just figure out what I did, I can keep it from happening again.  And so, top-down meaning-making takes over, and re-inteprets the physical sensations of fear.  It is easier to think “I brought this on myself; I must have wanted it” and find all the clues that could be, from the inside, interpreted as “wanting it.”  That is so SO much easier for the brain to grasp than this:  It was out of our control.

A most excellent novel that beautifully captures some of the “felt sense” of ambiguity in one specific example is Joshilyn Jackson’s “Someone Else’s Love Story.” someone else's love story

“No” does mean “No.”  Consent means no one is passing-out drunk.  Or high.  Or underage.  But the ones we need to convince?  The victims.  Or whatever word better describes the person who survives sexual assault.


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