Trigger Warning: The following article has content that could prove triggering for survivors of sexual violence.
As the verdict was handed down that Jerry Sandusky, convicted child rapist and former Penn State football coach, would spend the rest of his life in prison, the twitterverse exploded!
(it’s notable that this came from a widely-followed sports reporter)
Now, I have to admit. While I consider myself on the road to understanding peace through pacifism, few things make me want to inflict violence on another more than violence against children, particularly sexual violence. It robs children of their innocence and scars them for life; any person that would inflict such violence on a child is seriously disturbed, and they deserve punishment.
But is wishing rape upon those who have committed atrocities the measure by which we should understand justice?
One of the great failures of our so-called “justice” system is that there are virtually no resources or effort put toward healing and rehabilitation. In short, restorative justice is all but absent from the U.S. understanding of justice and punishment.
Now, Jerry Sandusky did some terrible things, and for that, he should be punished. However, we also need to remember with as much empathy as we can muster that those who commit such violence against children are often doing as a result of their own trauma. Perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse are significantly more likely to have experienced similar abuse when they were children, and they are often suffering from tremendous hurt and depression as a result.
Does this excuse their abhorrent actions? Absolutely not. But does punishing violence with violence, rape with rape, help anyone or anything?
When one of my best friends told me that she was drugged and raped, I told her that I wanted to beat the shit out of the man who did that to her. Only later did I find out that such language only hurt her more. One of the first things we were told when I was trained to be a sexual assault survivor’s advocate was, “Never introduce more violence into the situation. Even if you are angry and want to act in violence, to tell a survivor this or to act on your anger can often be tremendously retraumatizing or triggering for survivors.”
When I see the twitter rants calling for Jerry Sandusky’s rape in prison, I can’t help but think about the survivors of his violence. Do calls for Sandusky’s rape help them heal? Do calls for his rape help them feel that justice is done?
From all of this, three things are clear:
1. We fail to effectively support survivors of sexual violence in their healing.
With as many as 1 in 6 women (or 1 in 4 by other measures) and 1 in 33 men experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes in the U.S., every single one of us knows survivors of sexual violence. However, 42% of rape survivors never tell anyone about what happened.
Yet the topic is, so often, brushed under the rug. While my father had many talks with me about sex, he never once talked to me about consent, its importance, or how to ask. If sexual violence is discussed in mainstream culture, it is to encourage women (and only women) to take certain precautions to prevent themselves from getting raped.
Where is the discussion of prevention, of consent, of positive sexuality in popular culture? What are we doing to help 1 in 4 women and 1 in 33 men heal from the trauma of sexual violence? Where are the national healing programs and initiatives to help those who have experienced trauma? When so many people are calling publicly for another person to be raped in response to such a terrible act, are we taking into account the effect on survivors or on our cultural consciousness? Considering that only about 4% of Americans go to counseling or psychotherapy in a given year, there seems to be a problem of access . . . or stigma.
2. We particularly fail to support male survivors of sexual violence.
10% of all survivors of sexual violence are men, and most (all?) of Sandusky’s victims were young boys. “A greater percentage of juvenile sexual assault victims [are] male (18%) than [are] adult sexual assault victims (4%).” Yet outside of the often sheltered world of sexual violence prevention advocates (and even sometimes within this circle), there is little discussion of men as survivors. What discussion of men being raped that exists tends to only refer to prison rape, and that is often in the context of humor. However, 60,500 inmates are raped each year in prison, the vast majority of whom are men.
While the national numbers say that 42% of rape survivors never tell anyone, I would wager that number is far higher among male survivors of sexual violence. This is, in part, due to the gendered construction of rape. In the language and representations of sexual violence in our culture, women are the ones who are raped. This leads to a serious problem: the invisibility of male survivors of sexual violence. How can we help male survivors heal and move forward if we do not even acknowledge they exist? What are we doing to ensure that sexual violence never happens, no matter the gender of the survivor of the gender of the perpetrator? How can we help male survivors feel safer in acknowledging and seeking help after their trauma?
3. We fail to help rehabilitate and heal perpetrators of sexual violence so that it does not continue.
So often the attitude toward those in prison is, “They did something to deserve to be there, so they deserve whatever they get.” This leads to two problems: 1. we ignore the violence that prisoners experience at the hands of guards or other prisoners. 2. we assume that prison is and should be simply a place of punishment rather than a place of rehabilitation, healing, and preparation to re-enter society.
The recidivism rates in the United States are absolutely out of control. This is because in the U.S., our criminal “justice” system exists for one purpose: punishment. God forbid we deal with the problem that caused the crime. In the case of sexual violence, how far might counseling, positive masculinity workshops, anger management training, and consent and positive sexuality training go in preventing the crime from being committed again?
After all, Sandusky is not going to see the outside of a prison in his life. However, the average sentence for rape in the U.S. is 11.8 years. Do we think that being raped brutally in prison as a punishment is going to make a person somehow less likely to commit sexual violence once they are released? Are they really going to say, “Ooooh . . . Now I know how it feels. I won’t do that again”?
We all have a responsibility to end rape culture.
Whether through the most simple actions like our Tweets or through building healthy, positive sexual relationships or talking with our young people about positive sexuality, each and every one of us has a responsibility to work to end rape culture. No matter how much anger we feel toward people like Jerry Sandusky, we have to remember that
For ideas on how to better support survivors of sexual violence, read Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence.