Thursday, January 27, 2011

Victim Blaming in the Justice System

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

This Thursday finds me particularly exhausted, so I may be somewhat lacking in my usual personality, but I must try to keep to my promised once-a-week schedule, and moreover, this week's subject matter is of paramount importance.

This week, we'll be taking a look at one of my biggest frustrations with our society - the way that our justice system and a tremendous portion of our thinkers deal with victims/survivors of traumatic crime.

To set the tone, a quick compare and contrast.

A few years ago I was sexually assaulted. Horrible though the experience was, one of the things I could be thankful for was that I was able to deal with it in my own way and at my own pace. Because I have male genitalia and no real evidence or supporting witness testimony, I supremely doubted my ability to make any kind of case against my female adversary. Moreover, I didn't really want to. Even if it could have protected one or two other people, it seemed like it would only end up hurting /me/ much more - this was in a college setting, and only one or two people involved were on my side. The remaining five or six, who were much better networked, and with a demonstrated intent to be total jacks about it, were clearly in support of my assailant. So trying to do anything, even if I had actually had a case to make, would have been an extremely painful experience of rejection, disbelief, and trying to convince authority after authority - college staff, legal representatives, possibly even a trial court - of my role as survivor in all of this, with the end result being the possibility of an insanely damaging backlash smear campaign from the supporters of my assailant.

Some would argue that, for Justice's sake, the perp must be punished for their breach of the Law, no matter the cost. In doing this, they implicitly and often explicitly argue that the person who is victimized by their assailant is chiefly responsible for initiating and assisting in this task of punishment. Some people (I believe that Bill O'Reily is one of them) have even gone so far on occasion as to suggest that rape survivors who do not report their rape are actually as guilty as the rapists themselves, should that rapist ever repeat his or her crime.

In what way or universe does it make sense that, after being so incredibly hurt by someone, through no fault of your own, you now bear the burden of hunting that person down - even when it is entirely possible that you will not be believed once you actually make the accusation, and moreover, the whole process promises to simply reinforce the trauma, even if you win your case?

I should stop for a moment here and say that to those of you who have ever been in a situation like this and decided to stalwartly report, I do honor that decision and I respect your courage. What I think is important is that your courage be recognized and noted as an exception to what could normally be expected. It was not your responsibility to stop this person - it was society's.

Yes, you are a part of society, but that's not what I mean. What I'm saying is that we should take a look at the unfairness of a situation where someone who has already been victimized is being asked to jump back into the emotional fray on behalf of a society that is privileged enough to view this as an abstract issue of "justice," or at best as an issue of preventing harm to others, while refusing to look at the harm already happening. The important thing to do in case of a rape or other traumatic crime, in my opinion, is not to catch the perp, but rather, to take care of the survivor. If taking care of the survivor features catching the perp, then by all means, go all out and get them - but it doesn't always, and on other occasions it takes time. The last thing we must do is take away the agency of someone who has already had it forcibly taken once (or more).

And yet we do this ALL THE TIME, especially when it comes to minors. If we don't take away the agency of victims by pressuring them into reporting, going to trial, etc., with misplaced "encouragement" and other forms of guilt and manipulation, sometimes our system simply takes it away by force. When minors are discovered by authorities (police, school counselors, doctors, etc.) to have been the victims of rape, for example, most states if not the entire U.S. require by law that the crime be reported to the police. IMMEDIATELY.

If you are fortunate enough to have never been raped or sexually assaulted, then I ask you to try to imagine this scenario from the survivor's point of view. You are afraid, and you are alone. You are probably trying not to think about it too much because you aren't ready to yet - or maybe you are, but you're trying to do it on your own or with close help that you can trust. But you certainly aren't ready to start justifying yourself to the police and maybe even a court of law. Maybe some day but right now....even thinking about the person is enough to put you in a really, REALLY bad place, the kind where even basic functionality is pretty difficult. But, you finally seem to be putting together the necessary pieces to stay on top of it, at least for the moment.

Then - BAM - out of nowhere, you hear that one question that means an authority is on to you. Desperately, you scramble to come up with someway to explain away that scrap of information you let leak, but they can see the panic on your face and they know. It's too late, the secret is out, and you are forced to admit what you have been hiding. And then you are briskly whisked away to tell the police - if it was recent, you will probably be whisked away to a hospital for a rape kit/DNA testing, whether you want to go through the process or not (and for women, this process is often highly invasive, incredibly triggering, and may cost as much as 3000 dollars). They ask you questions without any real care for your well being, as they are now in "file report, identify suspects, assign justice" mode. Okay, I'm sure there are some cops out there who are better than this - if you are one of them, again, I applaud you - but that is not how I hear the story from my peers and friends who have gone through this.
The detective appears and starts pushing photos at you, and eventually there is that photo of a person you never, EVER wanted to see again, much less think about in relation to the event itself. Now you are alone, with a stranger, who doesn't care about you, and being asked to reveal this terrible, frightening truth, while confronting an image that has become to mean everything horrible and hateful to you.
It's not a pleasant experience, to say the least - and that is just day one of what will now become a public record of your battle for belief. Your decision about when and how to ask for justice is gone, out of your hands. You will have to tell people you maybe didn't want to tell, and maybe for good reason - unsupportive parents, for example, will want to know why you were at the police station.
Following may come a day in court. Or days. It's the same process as before, but now instead of one uncaring stranger, it's a crowd of uncaring strangers with a smattering of your most loathed enemies, and you are battling them to prove your truth against theirs, even after they have taken so much from you. Honestly, even thinking about the prospect makes me kind of sick....again, all the more reason I wish to honor the courage of those who opt into this. 

But all of this is generally a very bad situation for a survivor, as you can probably see. The very threat of it contributes to feeling like the rape itself is a dark secret that must be hidden - and indeed it must, or else something like the above will happen - which can only make the survivor feel infinitely worse about the fact that they have been so hurt. Keeping secrets causes festering of these things.

The thing that really boggles my mind about all of this is that after we drag out minors into court to fight a battle they don't want to fight and by all rights should never have to, we then proceed to give them virtually zero protection and in fact give tons of protection to the perpetrator in question. "Innocent until proven guilty" has an always true inverse: that the accuser is malevolent until proven righteous. Backlash from the friends and family of the accused is a threat to the survivor, especially if the survivor and the perp actually knew each other before the crime. The survivor making the accusation gets no anonymity, no real protection of any kind - and if there's anything worse for processing a traumatic experience than keeping it secret, it's having it forced out into the open where everyone can examine it and make their own judgments without actually talking to the person in question, where everyone can then judge the survivor and their truth, completely unmitigated. It is a form of being destroyed.

Even for those who do wish to testify and take their assailants to court, the way our system handles it is totally outrageous. And I believe this is because our system doesn't actually care about protecting the victims - as I said before, it's chief concern is the abstract concept of "justice." They pressure, coerce or even force victims into taking action, going so far as to blame the victim if the crime should be repeated elsewhere - all this for "justice." But if you take one thing away from this rant, take this:
There is no Justice when victims are being blamed.
It is one of the biggest problems of our society in general...we see something going wrong, and tell the victim what they should be doing to fix it. While it is important for someone in a bad situation to be willing to do what they can to get out of it, it is also important for those not actively in the situation to recognize that this limits their perspective. More importantly, perhaps, is the general sense of responsibility that our society is in need of adopting. When we see a situation like rape, instead of saying, "That survivor NEEDS to report this," we should be saying, "I should be renewed in my vigor to stand up to behavior that shows signs of leading to sexual assault in those around me." You see, rape is not the fault of the victim. It is the fault of the person who commits it. But it is also the fault of those close to that person who see that person behaving in a way that suggests rape-like tendencies, and don't say anything about it. If you can possibly help it, do not be that person.

It's similar to our response to suicidality. Rather than examining the social situation that leads to this event and trying to offer a constructive solution to the situation, we turn to the person who is hurt and start mining them for answers, often at great emotional and sometimes physical cost to the person who has already been so thoroughly beaten down. You want to talk about "mental illness," well, that right there is pretty sick if you ask me.

Please post rants of a similar nature in the comments, or anything else you feel might be related to all of this. If any of my arguments have confused you or seem to be missing something, please feel free to politely/gently probe/challenge them. I assure you the answers you seek are there, I am just a bit too tired to get them out tonight.

To the New Mad Nation, I bid my fondest salutations.

-R

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