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Sympathy and blame: Responding to rape

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When reports surfaced that my high school English teacher had preyed on his underage students at my alma mater, an all-girls school, I kept hearing this phrase: “How sad.” How sad, people said, for Joe. How sad for him and his reputation. He had a formative influence on my own academic career by writing a recommendation that helped get me into Stanford. He was charismatic, intelligent, inspiring. How sad.

Where does this sympathy for the aggressor come from? When Brock Turner was arrested for sexually assaulting an unconscious girl by the dumpsters outside KA, I heard it over and over again: “How awful for Brock Turner.” In his case, we receive comments on news reports and comments in conversations about just how sad it is that someone with a once bright future is being held back. These comments echo responses to the Stuebenville case, during which reporters seemed to care more about the criminals than their victims.

I’d like to make an important distinction now. I’m not talking about victim blaming, when people make excuses for a rapist based on the victim’s behavior. Though Turner’s victim has been significantly and needlessly blamed for what happened to her – “she was into it,” “she was drunk,” “she was wearing a short skirt” – I’m not discussing how people talk about victims of sexual assault.

I am discussing how people talk about perpetrators of sexual assault, for whom there seems to be less of a presumption of blame. The gut reaction of many to cases like these is not to extend their hearts to the women who are abused and exploited but to make woeful statements about the men who commit the crimes. This pattern reinforces the design of a national system that doesn’t protect women in our courts or our narratives. Victims are asked to be perfect, are interrogated for their implication in the crimes committed against them, with very minor payoff socially or legally given the fact that 97 percent of rapists walk free.

Let’s be clear: whether or not Turner believes that what he did was rape based on his intentions at the beginning of the night, an unconscious person cannot consent to sex. It constitutes a logical fallacy to claim that someone is not guilty of rape while admitting that he penetrated a person without consent. What happened is a shame. It is a shame that this happens so often and in so many ways, especially at our school. But why doesn’t this shame extend first to the predator instead of the prey?

Consider this my public non-apology for lacking sympathy for the Brock Turners of the world. Is it really so extreme of me to be just as, if not more, concerned about the girl facing a battle of recovery within a system rigged against justice? Regardless of your level of sympathy, it bears noting that rape is the only violent crime that is considered contentious and hardly taken seriously. Almost no one decries how sad it is that a murderer is caught and jailed. Rather, they breathe a sigh of relief that a criminal with a destructive nature cannot offend again. The majority of rapists tend to be repeat offenders. Consider another example. Rapes are falsely reported at a rate on par with other violent crimes: two to 10 percent. Yet when rape victims share their stories, the public is quick to point out that we should possess a healthy dose of suspicion.

What I’m asking is not for everyone to universally and without some skepticism take every victim’s side every time. I’m not even asking that the judicial system do so. Instead, I’m asking to bring down the level of resentment and culpability prescribed to victims, and often hurled at women in general. I’m asking to shift the instinctual gut reaction to rape away from one that places a disproportionately higher priority and value on the accused rather than the victim.

Why the double standard? Why are rapists deemed misunderstood and victims mistaken? Why are rapists justified by their drinking and victims condemned for it? This seems to be an area in which men – the vast majority of the accused – are blatantly shown higher respect in the aftermath of these events compared to women – most often the victims. Rapists and sexual predators should be punished for their actions, and the level of distrust reserved for victims should not outweigh the level of distrust for perpetrators of sexual violence. Proceed with caution in response to rape, and be mindful of where your sympathy and blame lie.

Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Caitie is a senior majoring in Sociology with a minor in Political Science. She studies generational differences in gender norms, and is particularly interested in the attitudes and behaviors that characterize Millennials ("Generation Y"). Contact her at [email protected] with comments or questions.