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Outrage speaks to the impact of how sexual violence is discussed

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and National Sexual Violence Resource Center have been contacted by people who were offended and angered when talk show host Joy Behar used the word “tramps” on “The View” on Monday, October 10th to refer to three women who made allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Bill Clinton.

Sexual violence is a widespread and serious issue, and one that has significant impact on survivors, families, communities, workplaces and institutions. Our words have lasting impact, and the way we talk about sexual violence, victims and people who perpetrate acts of sexual violence matters.  We can create environments that are supportive and open to hearing survivors’ voices or we can create environments that seem hostile and unsafe. The practices of “slut-shaming” and victim blaming do the latter. These misinformed responses to disclosures of sexual violence create feelings of shame and fear, and keep victims silent – which in turn keeps perpetrators invisible.

Our nation is at a watershed moment when it comes to sexual violence. It is evident that people are coming to understand that prevention is everyone’s responsibility, and that is why we are heartened at the public outrage we have witnessed during the past few years – outrage at lenient sentences, inappropriate comments and victim blaming statements made by judges, public figures, attorneys and other community leaders, and numerous other demonstrations of rape culture. We see evidence that the shame and stigma that has silenced victims for centuries is finally crumbling; one needs to look no further than the #notok, #ithappenedtome, #whyIstayed and #FreeKesha hashtags on Twitter that demonstrate support for victims and thousands of survivors emboldened to tell their stories.

However as a culture we still have work to do. It is time that we confront our fears about perpetrators of sexual violence. Our tendency to play judge and jury based on limited information in media reports must stop. When we focus on individual cases and attempt to discredit individual victims we are collectively diverting ourselves from the uncomfortable truth that these stories tell when looked at as a whole:

Sexual violence is commonplace in the United States.

People we know, love, trust, respect and revere are often the very same people who inflict harm – a trusted family member, teacher or community leader, a sports idol, a beloved entertainer.

It is a hard truth.

It’s time we face it and expand our ability to hear victims when they tell us what was done to them, offer support, and acknowledge the shock and betrayal we personally feel when someone we admire, trust and even love is named responsible. It may be tempting to want to find fault with the victim… but we’ve been doing it for centuries and it doesn’t lead to healthy people or communities, and it certainly hasn’t lessened the perpetration of sexual violence. Let’s do it differently. Let’s keep making progress in the right direction, as evidenced by public outrage and actions of late.

Many survivors of sexual violence have been deeply hurt by the way others have responded to their disclosures of sexual assault and how they’ve been treated by the criminal justice system. The past few days have been flooded with comments and reactions to the ongoing national dialog around sexual violence.  If you are a survivor and this is creating stressful reactions for you, help is available through a nationwide network of sexual assault centers or by contacting the national hotline: 1-800-656-4673.