Article By Anne K. Ard
~ DECEMBER 2021 ~ If we ask the wrong questions, we won’t ever understand the problem. Recent news about a serial rapist in our community led many to ask, “Why didn’t the victims report sooner?” We have been asking that same question of victims since the arrest of Jerry Sandusky in 2011 and long before, often with an implication and undertone of victim-blaming, as if somehow the continued perpetration of sexual violence was the fault of those who didn’t report it.
But we are asking the wrong questions. The better question is, “What is it about our community or the systems at work here that discourages victims from coming forward?” People who have been victims of domestic or sexual violence don’t come forward, don’t report for a host of reasons, but for most the fundamental reason is that they do not think anyone will believe them.
Victims know that some people in our society have more credibility than others — it is more likely that people who are white, wealthy, and male are more likely to be believed about almost anything than people of color, the poor, and women or non-binary folks. That is one reason that people in power, people like Jerry Sandusky, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein often perpetrate violence for many years before they are stopped. But there are many other contributing factors in the choices victims make about coming forward or not.
Often there is a well-grounded fear of the person who hurt them. When you have been assaulted, especially by someone older or more powerful than you, and that assault is accompanied by further threats of violence if you tell anyone, that is a powerful incentive to keep quiet.
Sometimes, a victim doesn’t come forward out of a fear that they will be the ones who will get in trouble, that they will be targeted for underage drinking, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just for being naïve. I have often heard the question, “Well, what did she think would happen when she went there?” No one ever goes anywhere, to a party, or a job interview, or a hotel room or home, with the thought that they will be assaulted there.
Sadly, victims often don’t come forward because they don’t believe that the system will work for them. Too often they are right about that. While we are blessed in Centre County to have a justice system that works better than most on behalf of victims, most victims have no knowledge of that and their lived experiences of law enforcement and the courts are often shaped by bias against the poor and the marginalized. We can do better.
The question we have to ask ourselves — not those who have been victims — is this, “What kind of community do we need to create so that those who have been victims of violence feel safe to come forward?”
The creation of such a community and the systems that support it, is not on victims, it is on us. We are the ones who must be clear in all that we say and do that we believe victims, that we hear their stories, that we will act on their behalf to keep them safe. We must be clear that the fault for violence lies squarely on the perpetrator and not on a victim for anything they may or may not have done before or after they were assaulted. We must know the resources available to victims in our community and share that information widely. My hope is that when a friend, family member or co-worker discloses they have been a victim that the very first response is, “I’m sorry. I believe you. Let’s call Centre Safe together.” That is how we create a community where it is safe to tell.