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The question is unthinkable given the conditions: “Did you ever have a sexually transmitted disease?” This is one of the first questions to which a rape victim must respond. In what way does her sexual history play any role in her case against a defendant? We have “double jeopardy” to protect people from unfair prosecution, but rape victims are repeatedly put on trial over and over for crimes perpetrated against them. Prosecutors are allowed to judge rape victims in a critical light, aggressively emphasizing many factors related to her personal life, her appearance, or her action just prior to the rape that she endured. These factors are brought out to influence a jury’s perception of the victim creating doubt about whether the crime may not in fact have been the victim’s fault. Did she deserve it? Was she asking for it? There are cases in which rape victims are treated differently due to the lack of understanding and prejudice which can be brought to bear against victims. Prejudice is the act of forming an unreasonable judgment against another. These prejudgments can affect a victim’s emotional status, actually leading some victims to end up asking themselves if the transgression was their fault. Three cases will reveal the complexity of what is at stake.
The first case is based upon the character of Sarah Tobias, portrayed by Jodi Foster in the movie The Accused. Sarah is depicted as a young independent woman who has just ended a relationship with her partner. After the breakup, Sarah goes to a bar called The Mill where her friend works. After a couple of drinks, Sarah is no longer sober. She starts dancing provocatively. The men in the bar surround her, and she is gang-raped. Later at the hospital, Sarah, battered and exhausted, is interrogated. One of the standard questions directed at her inquires as to whether or not she has ever had an STD. During the trial, Sarah is bombarded by more questions about her past. She is portrayed as if she were the guilty one, even though she has been violated in a vicious assault. The defense attorney builds his defense on the possibility that her lifestyle makes her into women who would ask to be raped. He emphasizes how she was drunk and was dressed provocatively on the night in question. He suggests that wearing a mini skirt can translate into an invitation to be raped, that consent comes complicit with attire.
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"Rape is NOT the Victim's Fault." 123HelpMe.com. 14 Dec 2019
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A different case is the one of Alice Sebold. In her autobiography Lucky, Alice Sebold gives a vivid and detailed narration of her rape and trial. Her experience differs from Sarah’s experience. Alice was younger and clearly with no experience; she was a virgin when raped at age eighteen as a college freshman. There was no alcohol or drugs in her body. The treatment of Alice by the defense attorney was quite different from Sarah’s case. Sarah was treated as a whore, while Alice was pitied as a virgin. Her innocence is all that shielded her from zealous attack by the defense. Why are some victims treated better than others? Aren’t they all victims of rape? They are certainly victimized and abused whether or not the hymen was torn during the rape. The difference in the two cases has nothing to do with the crime, but with the odds that the defense attorney can create prejudice against the victim. How the defense behaves depends not on the attacker, but on the attacked.
A third case was presented in a play performed at Saint Peter’s College during Freshmen Orientation by students of the Scream Theatre from Rutgers University. The scenario took place in a college dorm. This play dealt with college life, partying, liquor, and rape. In the play, one of the co-eds invites her friends to a dorm party. The host of this party is a guy whom she thinks she likes. During the party the host takes her to his room and offers her liquor. She sits on his bed and they start kissing. When she becomes uncomfortable, she tells him to stop. Unfortunately for her, he does not understand the meaning of “stop.” He proceeds to have his way with her. This performance was interactive, and the audience was invited to address questions to performers while they played their roles. During exchanges in character, each performer presented a different perception of the rape. The victim’s roommate did not see the situation as constituting rape. She said that she witnessed no crime. A student in the audience then commented that it was the victim’s fault because she decided to go to the room and she had also been drinking. All that I could think to myself was to ask: Does going into a man’s room mean that a woman agrees to be raped? Another student said that she led him on when she kissed him. But a victim does not ask to be raped. Even if she had shed some of her clothes, she still retains the right to change her mind and say “No.” The words “No!” and “Stop!” have clear and definite meanings that must be acknowledged. Whether it’s Sara Tobias, Alice Sebold, or a naïve college freshman, any attempt to transfer blame onto an unwilling victim is reprehensible.
Due to judgmental prejudice aimed at the victim, many women do not seek help or cannot denounce crimes committed on their bodies. They prefer to stay quiet instead of making themselves into targets for rebuke. Many are pushed over the edge and begin to blame themselves with thoughts such as “I could have prevented it. It’s my fault because I had a few drinks. Or, I should have known what I was letting myself in for when I went into his room.” We live in a culture that allows a victim to be portrayed and made to feel guilty based on what she was wearing or if she participated in foreplay before trying to back out of a situation. Because people’s perceptions and judgments are influenced by women’s supposed indecision, many jump to a conclusion that rape is the woman’s fault. A victim of rape should never ask herself, “Was it my fault?” If people would understand the one indisputable fact of human existence that no one asks to be sexually abused, then judgments about the victim would not run wild and attention could be focused where it belongs: on the perpetrator. Only in a culture that holds violators accountable will more women seek emotional support and press charges against their transgressors.