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From rape 'myths' to Roy Moore: We can't continue to blame victims

From rape 'myths' to Roy Moore: We can't continue to blame victims
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Recent sexual assault allegations from California to Alabama highlight a broadly tolerated culture of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men in the entertainment industry and elected office. 

In the daily deluge of reports, CNN recently profiled 11 prominent men accused of sexual misconduct in October alone. And high profile perpetrators are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that up to 85 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, and a full 45 percent of U.S. EEOC charges filed in 2015 “alleged harassment on the basis of sex.” Yet the National Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimates that 63 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.

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Widely held stereotypes that shift blame from perpetrators to victims contribute to a culture where reporting is suppressed and discredited. The belief that women routinely lie about rape, seen playing out in the Roy Moore saga, has roots in religious texts and Greek mythology, and persists in popular culture. In such age-old myths, women routinely use rape allegations as revenge against men. Even though research finds that only a small minority of rapes is falsely reported, women who come forward with sexual assault allegations must endure being branded as liars and opportunists seeking political or financial gain.

The legacy of this lore is most concerning when it finds its way into law. The 17th century “Hale Warning” established the idea in English common law, and later in the American legal system, that rape is rare, and that vindictive women too easily bring such charges.

Legal advances, like Rape Shield laws, since the 1970s, have sought to protect accusers from tactics designed to discredit them, but are opposed by men who see their earlier legal advantage eroded. According to a report in The Guardian, as Alabama’s Chief Justice, Roy Moore himself argued that evidence about even underage accusers’ sexual history should be allowed in court, and often sided with men seeking to have their own convictions for sexual crimes overturned. 

Any legal or policy advancements to counter the disparaging narrative that women are not to be believed must contend with the longstanding cultural context, where women’s bodies are subject to unwanted cat calls and “pussy grabbing,” and their testimony diminished and questioned both in actual court, and the court of public opinion. A flood of voices will be needed to drown out historical mischaracterizations of women as untrustworthy, and it is coming. Accusations against Roy Moore and other are mounting, and men from all sectors find themselves accused of behavior once condoned by silence and cultural norms.

But policy changes that uphold women’s voices are advancing, like Affirmative Consent laws already passed in California, New York, and Illinois. Setbacks, like the DeVos rollback of Title IX, once again privileging the position of the accused over accusers in campus sexual assault cases, will not likely be tolerated for long. Women have taken to the streets and the ballot box, and are running for office in unprecedented numbers. 

Advancements toward proportional representation of women in state legislatures and the halls of Congress, supported by public awareness campaigns that testify to women’s long suffering of unacknowledged sexual harassment and assault, contribute to a context in which women are believed. 

Only with the clout conferred by political and economic power can women turn the tide towards justice, and rewrite the narrative that has silenced them for so long. 

Bonnie Stabile is a Research Assistant Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, where she is currently the Director of the Master of Public Policy Program. Aubrey Grant is a Doctoral Student in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.