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The culture of victim-blaming

 

Sexual assault, rape and our culture of victim-blaming: how some women are fighting back.

When people post links on their Facebook walls, the topics are typically funny or amusing, aimed at starting lighthearted conversation. While some of my friends might occasionally dare to tread into hot water with questions of politics and social ideology in their comments, few have the courage to start a dialogue about a certain issue that our society has labeled as taboo, even though it affect millions of men, women and children in ways much more profound than the latest viral YouTube video. 

In a society where rape is a topic that we prefer to avoid, to forget, to shove under the rug and act as if it doesn’t exist, one of my friends did something surprising last night that broke all of the rules of Facebook social behavior. On my Newsfeed, in the sea of fleeting status updates, video posts and amusing pictures, one lone link stood out from the rest. 

Megan Loria, a fellow international studies major, honors college member and close friend of mine, posted a link to a Tumblr account called Project Unbreakable, a photography project begun by 19-year-old college student Grace Brown in New York.

But what sets these pictures apart from the thousands of other photography projects on the Internet? Grace takes portraits of victims of sexual assault and rape, standing tall and defiantly with poster board signs. Handwritten on each sheet of white in bold, black ink is a single quote. 

A quote from their attackers. 

Little did Grace know when she started Project Unbreakable in October of last year that her blog would get attention from around the world. Women — and men — from countless countries began sending her their own pictures, some bearing their faces, others hiding them, all with one thing in common: the handwritten signs. 

She now posts a mixture of her own photographs and anonymous submissions daily, creating one of the most powerful cyber tapestries I have ever seen. Through her project, thousands of victims are taking back the power in the words that once held them captive.

But there is one thing that Megan didn’t mention when she posted this link to her Facebook wall.

Like the thousands of women in the Project Unbreakable photographs, she is a rape survivor.

We have all heard the statistics: one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and most of those attacks — over 60 percent — will go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Still, because so few victims come forward, the true percentage is believed to be much, much higher.

We live in a society of victim-blaming, where the victims are told that they brought the violence upon themselves, that they were asking for it, as if their own actions justified the attack. They were drunk; they led him (or her) on; they dressed provocatively. The list of accusations and excuses is endless, but not one of them offers any vindication for sexual assault and rape.

Though I myself know many survivors, very few of them have the courage to speak about their attacks. But Megan is one of them. 

If you talk to her about her experience, it becomes very clear why so many victims choose to keep their attacks a secret. As time has passed, talking about her rape has been her own way of healing, coping and moving forward. 

And at times, Megan has suffered for it.

Because she chose not to press charges and is so vocal about her attack, people have accused her of lying, saying that “real” victims never talk. Some have insisted that since her attacker was a friend, it wasn’t considered rape. Others have even told her that she should keep her mouth shut.

All of these people are completely out of line.

Cristen Hemmins, an Oxford resident, has her own story to tell. Like Megan, she is open about her own attack that happened nearly 21 years ago. But unlike Megan, Cristen made headline news when she was abducted by two strangers outside her dorm at Millsaps College in Jackson, raped and shot twice as she attempted to escape.

As Cristen said in her own words in an article that ran in the Spring 1996 issue of the Oxford American Magazine, “I was lucky, in a way, to have been shot. Everyone, men especially, could sympathize ... if I had just been raped, I would have had to go home from the hospital and quietly do my own emotional and mental recovering while everyone tiptoed around me as if I should be ashamed or embarrassed.”

Correct me if I am wrong, but it is hard to say that something isn’t off in our society when a rape victim believes she was lucky to be shot.

We call Megan and Cristen “survivors” because in the same way that a cancer patient has endured a disease of the body, sexual assault survivors have endured a disease of mankind. But unlike cancer, heart disease and any other corporal illnesses, the support networks are not publicly celebrated. Conventions and activists rarely gain public attention because we choose to avert our gaze. 

Instead of finding comfort and support from family and friends like most people in the hospital, rape victims often find shame and misunderstanding.

Rape doesn’t just happen to sluts who you think are asking for it. It happens to women and children of all ages, races, religions, shapes and sizes. It happens to mothers and daughters, your sisters and friends. It even happens to men. People like Grace, Megan and Cristen are each fighting against the culture of victim-blaming in their own way. And while their efforts are admirable, they will only make a difference if we choose to listen. While you may think that this issue does not affect you, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Because if you think you don’t know a survivor, they just haven’t told you yet. 

And with victim-blaming, statistically, they probably never will.

 

Lexi Thoman is junior international studies and Spanish double-major from St. Louis, Mo.