The recent allegations against former VP, Oscar-winning, Nobel Prize joint holder Al Gore of sexual assault is enough to make anyone – Dem, Indie, or Republican squirm with uneasiness. I mean, it’s not everyday you hear that the former right hand man to the leader of the free world and near leader of the free world in the closest Presidential race in the history of our nation ask a masseuse to release the energy in his second chakra.
The collision of digital media and pop culture has enabled us to receive information about this case – and news in general – faster than at other point in human history. Anywhere, anytime in the world, if a story breaks, if you have access to the internet, you will have reasonable means to find out what happened.
Find out what happened, that is, from the viewpoint of the media. And the staff. And their collective point system to determine if a story is “true” or not. Granted, if I were a paid journalist for a reputable paper, I’d use my own point system of fact-checking. If you gotta report on whether XYZ is a legitimate story, you have to have all the dots connect. That’s understandable.
What’s not understandable and downright wrong is to apply the journalists’ point system of “truth” likelihood to cases of sexual violence, a field where the dots do anything but connect. It is the very nature of violence that the dots are SUPPOSED to not make sense. We’re talking trauma and memory here, not context and accuracy.
The inconvenient truth about sexual assault is that there truly is no way to determine what truly happened, except for the two people who were involved. It’s more often than not, though, that the survivor of sexual assault is a woman, the assailant is a man, and there was indeed a sexual violation. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #1: Rape actually happens. All the time. At an alarming rate that you don’t want to acknowledge or believe. And it is rare that the rapes are ever proven.
Unfortunately, society at large tends to use celebrity and public cases ala Kobe Bryant and Ben Rothlisberge for their field experience and education. People hear about a public allegation of sexual violence and the majority of media consumers jump on the PROVE IT! PROVE IT! PROVE IT! taunting bandwagon, rather than displaying any semblance of sensitive, mature decorum, or, heaven forbid, prudence. It’s disheartening, to say the least. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #2: The public’s response, sensitivity, and knowledge base about sexual violence against women is inexcusably deficient. Is it really any wonder so few women ever come forward? Or why we have such a hard time comprehending any sort of justice outside the legal court system? The public’s venomous need for graphic details and using “guilty” or “not guilty” as the barometer for truth only further darkens the already dark path for survivors of violence.
In a conservative estimate, the FBI reports that only 37% of actual rapes are reported. After working in sexual assault for many years in advocacy and counseling, I believe it’s probably more around the 3.7% not 37%. Many years ago, a colleague who worked as a researcher in criminal justice for the government once told me that the report she submitted for the Department of Justice, which included the data of the number of sexual assaults that occurred that year, was later published with altered data numbers. The actual number of rapes was published LOWER than what her findings suggested. Why, I asked. Because, she told me plainly, no one wants to hear about how many women are raped in this country. And no one wants to tell the truth. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #3 Even the most credible resources for sexual violence estimates are just that: estimates. Ask any person who has worked in the field for more than 1 year who has direct service experience. S/he will tell you what I will tell you: The statistics are wrong. It’s more. Much more.
Anytime I wrote or give a talk about sexual assault, inevitably, someone brings up two magic words that somehow make people, usually disbelievers, feel better about the world: FALSE REPORTS. Yes, false reports exist. Yes, false reports exist. Yes, false reports exist.
There. I wrote it. Three times just to make sure you know they they do exist.
They happen. Of course they happen. Just like how everyday people lie on the trial stand. Just like employees fudge the truth about billing hours. Just like how some people “forget” a number or two when filing their taxes. People give false reports. YES. And, in that vein, I pray that people understand that (INCONVENIENT TRUTH #4) for every false report there are about 1000 truth bearing women who will NEVER say a word because they understand that when it comes to rape, the benefit of the doubt is given to the assailant, not the survivor.
It’s also imperative that people understand the difference between a false report and a withdrawn statement.
Many, many women I worked with who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, who were beaten black and blue, whose bodies were broken and spirits were crushed withdrew their statements and vanished into thin air. (WHY? Go back and read IC #4.) That’s a withdrawn statement. An actual false report is when the alleged victim admits to lying about giving a false statement. There’s no retracting of anything, just an admittance of lying. However, I must also interject, that there are women who also admit to false reporting out of fear of going forward. Not everything is black and white.
The overwhelming majority of women I work with never report and the ones that do face incredible odds of ever witnessing legal justice. My job, for many years, was to assist women in finding justice in other ways. Justice can be measured in how many hours of sleep you got, how many days were free of alcohol or drugs to numb the pain, entering a new, healthy relationship, communicating freely…Justice, for many survivors, is about reclaiming what was stolen. Rebuilding one’s life in the safety and love of their families and communities is often all one can do. INCONVENIENT TRUTH #5 Survivors often heal on their own, absent of any retribution or affirmation.
Finding out whether cases like Gore, Bryan, or Rothlisberger are true is not my interest. The last thing on my agenda is to convince anyone if someone is a perpetrator or not. What I am most interested in is pressing critical and comprehensive understanding of sexual violence against women; and how powerful and damaging this issue truly is. And if people understood how prevalent this is in their local communities, not as many folks would be interested in the celebrity cases. I guarantee it.
Sexual assault is a the issue with no silver lining. There is no upside or sentence that begins with, “Well, at least…” No. There is no middle ground, safe haven, or pill to make this pain go away. For the survivor, it is a vicious, damning cycle of violence, judgment, disbelief, and a tedious road of recovery. There is no silver lining, but there is hope. There is hope that everyday people, like you and me, can see through the BS of media’s portrayal of sexual assault and, if nothing else, better understand the issue at hand for ourselves. The more people who understand the true facts of violence against women, the more hope we have of preventing it in our own communities and families. And if it does happen, which it likely has and will, we are able to respond with gentleness, understanding, and empathy.