What was she wearing?
Karla was starting her third year at the university. She was feeling comfortable and safe there. She’d gone to parties, but she and her roommate played it careful – sticking together and leaving together. But on a night in early September 1999, Karla’s safety shield was shattered.
Karla was raped in a fraternity brother’s room at a fraternity house while her roommate fruitlessly searched for her. She blamed herself. “Our culture had ingrained in me at the age of 19 that it must have been my fault. I was drilling myself before anybody had the chance.”
And she was hurt to learn that her dad had asked her mom what she was wearing that night. “I know he was naïve and being stupid. … In no way has my father ever blamed me for this, but I think it was his old-school, stereotypical way of saying, ‘How the hell did this happen to my daughter?'” Karla’s outfit that night was modest, she told her mom – not one that likely drew a lot of attention.
Blaming the victim
Almost half of American women have experienced some sort of sexual violence. Almost 20 percent have been raped. And a common question posed when these women speak out is: What was she wearing?
But blaming the victim’s clothing or actions is taking the easy path, says Donna Dunn, executive director of Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). MNCASA is dedicated to finding ways to stop sexual violence, including changing public attitudes toward rape and other forms of sexual manipulation.
“It’s somehow easier and feels safer to try to understand this issue by challenging the behavior of people who were targeted as victims,” Dunn says. ” ‘If only she hadn’t …’ fill in the blank. If only this, if only that. In reality, any one of us could probably make the same choices that any victim of sexual violence makes. And the difference between whether or not we will be harmed when we made a decision is not whether or not we made that decision but are we doing that in the presence of somebody who will take advantage of it or use it.”
Short skirts and revealing tops aren’t motivators for rape, Dunn says. Instead, part of the problem lies with how men view themselves and how they view women. And how women view themselves.
“It’s a combination of our inability as a society to embrace conversation and dialogue about healthy sexuality and then the marketing about who we are as males and females and what our gender roles say that we should be in how we fit into society and where our power is.”
Dunn describes women as “the gatekeepers of sexuality.”
“I think that for a lot of victims, they have internalized these messages about if you say no in the right ways and you’re still raped, clearly you didn’t say it strong enough or you didn’t say it hard enough or you did something wrong,” she says.
Scrubbing away sexism
So victims blame themselves, just like Karla did that night and afterward.
“In the moment I was thinking, ‘Holy sh–, Karla, you drank way too much.” It didn’t even register that she was being raped, Karla says. Instead she was thinking, “You really did it this time. Way to go.”
If the public blames victims for their choices and if the victims blame themselves, what’s the solution?
“If we want to solve and if we want to prevent sexual violence, we have to look at the core of the way we function as a society,” answers Dunn. “And that becomes very complex. It doesn’t look like a quick answer by any means. On the surface, it looks like the quicker answer is: Let’s look at what women can do differently. But we know that women’s choices and women’s behavior are not the source of the problem. It’s individuals who choose to use sex as a tool of violence.”
Dunn says MNCASA is working on how to effect culture change. Among the solutions: teaching youths to talk about sex and sexuality in healthy ways; challenging the sexualized, violent images prevalent in our environment; and empowering parents to talk with kids about healthy sexuality.
She would like to see sexism scrubbed from society. “How we have moved forward on addressing the harm of racism is similar to how we should address this. Small and large acts at the expense of women and girls set the stage for violence,” she says.
Find your voice
Karla urges any woman who’s been raped to find her voice. Tell someone who won’t point fingers.
“I don’t want any women silenced. Trust yourself and your instincts. Survivors know what’s best for them in the moment,” she says. “Know who [your] healthy, supportive system is. If they truly want to support you, they’ll be horrified for you.”
With the backing of her family, her roommate and the dean of students, Karla chose to pursue the case through the university system.
The fraternity brother was punished for providing beer to a minor, but the panel found there wasn’t enough evidence for the rape.
It’s not just a “women’s issue.” About 1 in 71 American men reported being raped and about 1 in 5 experienced other sexual violence. •
About 80 percent of female rape victims were first raped before they turned 25. •
Most female and male victims of rape knew their perpetrators.
Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010