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The Responsibility of Victims

In an emotional interview, American gymnast and Olympic medalist Simone Biles condemned the USA Gymnastics organization under whose tutelage she and hundreds of other gymnasts endured sexual assault: “You literally had one job, and you didn’t protect us.”

With all due respect to Ms. Biles and all the others who underwent similar trauma, if an organization’s name is “USA Gymnastics”, and it “literally had one job”, I can pretty much guarantee you that one job is not sexual assault prevention. In fact, unless an organization’s name is something along the lines of “Sexual Assault Prevention, Inc.,” that organization is going to have business interests that compete with sexual assault prevention. Which is why the responsibility for sexual assault prevention can’t fall on businesses alone — they can’t be trusted. The responsibility must also fall on independent third parties entrusted with that specific duty — e.g., the police, abuse hotlines, lawyers and courts.

None of these third parties, however, can do their jobs effectively without the cooperation of victims.

The idea that victims of sexual assault have a duty to cooperate with law enforcement goes at least as far back as the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 22:23-27, the law is given concerning an engaged woman who is presumed to have been sexually assaulted: If the assault took place in the city, and the woman did not cry out for aid, both the man accused and the woman are punished — her failure to cry out is taken as evidence of her complicity. If, on the other hand, the assault took place in the field, where no one could have heard her cry out, only the man is punished, for it is assumed the woman cried out for aid.

In city and field alike, the principle embedded in the law is clear: When evil occurs, you are either combating it or cooperating with it — defying it or deferring to it — stopping it or satisfying it. And taking the latter course can have consequences that reach far beyond your personal life.

Take the cases of Christine Blasey Ford, E. Jean Carroll, and Ashley Wagner.

Christine Blasey Ford claims that thirty-five years ago she went to a student party where she was sexually assaulted by two men. Because the party involved underage drinking and she feared her parents’ reaction, she kept the assault to herself and a couple of friends.

E. Jean Carroll claims that twenty years ago she went to a department store and encountered a famous celebrity who invited her to try on some clothes for him. She accompanied him to a dressing room where he sexually assaulted her. She escaped from his clutches but informed no one about the assault but a couple of friends.

Ashley Wagner claims that ten years ago she, then a teen figure skater, attended a party with a mix of older skaters. Drinking was involved, and she was given a bed to sleep in at the party when she was unable to obtain a ride back to where her team was being quartered. An older teammate slipped into her bed and began kissing and groping her for several minutes until she protested. She would only mention the assault to a couple of friends — (I’m starting to see a pattern here) — and she even had cordial interaction with her assaulter afterwards. “The next morning, he acted like nothing happened, and I acted like nothing happened.”

In each of these cases, a woman was sexually assaulted, but for whatever reasons, she kept it mostly to herself. The reasons for silence were varied. Maybe it was fear of parental condemnation. Maybe it was fear of social ostracism. Maybe it was fear of losing professional opportunities. Whatever the reasons, in each of these cases, evil got a pass.

And who were the men that these women accused?

Christine Blasey Ford’s alleged attacker — Brett Kavanaugh, now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

E. Jean Carroll’s alleged attacker — Donald Trump, now President of the United States.

Ashley Wagner’s alleged attacker — figure skater John Coughlin, who committed suicide after being accused of molesting up to 10 other women.

In all three cases, these allegations — two of which which could have changed the course of American history, given their subjects — were raised far too late to make a difference. Judge Kavanaugh had already built a career too distinguished to be derailed by last-minute accusations. Donald Trump had won an election even over reports of similar scandalous behavior. And John Coughlin was dead, having molested all the women he was ever going to. (Let’s hope, for the sake of Ms. Wagner’s conscience, that she was the last.)

Since we’re talking about the high price of not speaking up, I want to draw attention for a moment to Ms. Wagner’s account of her assault by John Coughlin:

It was the middle of the night when I felt him crawl into my bed….he started kissing my neck. I pretended to be deep asleep, hoping he would stop. He didn’t. When his hands started to wander, when he started touching me, groping my body, I tried to shift around so that he would think I was waking up and he would stop. He didn’t….When he continued to wander further over my body, I started to get scared because he was so much bigger than I was. I didn’t know if I could push him off of me. I just continued to lie there pretending to be asleep, hoping he would get bored and go somewhere else. He didn’t. Then I felt myself starting to cry, and I knew I had to make a choice. I opened my eyes and pulled away from him as he kissed my neck. I grabbed his invading hand, and I told him to stop. And he did. He looked at me for a few seconds, quietly got up, and left the room. All of this happened over the period of about five minutes. That is such a small amount of time, but it’s haunted me ever since.

If you were able to read that account without steadily mounting rage, I commend you. I don’t mean rage at him, though — rage at her. Because it’s clear from how the account ended that this “period of about five minutes” that has “haunted” her “ever since” could’ve been a period of about five seconds had she done from the beginning what she’d needed to all along: Tell him no. Combat rather than comply. Defy rather than defer. Stop rather than satisfy.

She still would’ve been a victim of sexual assault, of course. But there’s a world of difference between five seconds of your hand over an open flame and five minutes of same. Her silence for those five minutes bought her nothing but ten years of silent agony. Imagine what difference a simple, “What are you doing? Stop that!” could’ve made.

According to Ms. Wagner, until just recently she had considered the encounter with Coughlin “so ambiguous” that she couldn’t even articulate that she had been sexually assaulted until the last couple of years, thanks to the “knowledge and empowerment that came with the #MeToo movement“. Good for #MeToo. It’s excellent that young women are being trained to know when sexual assault is taking place.

But being able to tell that a sexual assault on one’s person is in progress is pretty useless if all one does is lie back and let the experience be seared into one’s memory for a skeptical posterity 10 or more years in the future. The point of knowing how to identify sexual assaults must be to stop them, and stopping evil does not come from passive acquiescence. Victims must speak up — first to their attackers, and then to the authorities.

And this duty to speak incurs a prerequisite obligation: Don’t knowingly put yourself in situations where you won’t be able to speak up about any bad things that happen to you there.

For example, if there’s a party you want to attend, and your parents wouldn’t approve, don’t go. Because something bad could happen to you there, and how will you be able to tell your parents or the police about it? You won’t. And then 35 years later you’ll watch your attacker be confirmed to the Supreme Court. Or be elected President. Or be accused of molesting more girls after you.

Victims have responsibilities, too.

Image Credits: All images courtesy of Wikipedia

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Mike, Who Speaketh His Mind

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