By Katie Feifer
Amy Dickinson, a nationally syndicated advice columnist wrote on November 27, 2009 responding to a request for advice from “Victim in Virginia,” a young female trying to determine whether she had been raped at a fraternity party. We were deeply dismayed by Ms. Dickinson’s response.
Ms. Dickinson displays an all-too-common ignorance of the dynamics of non-stranger sexual assault, the law and the appropriate ways to advise a survivor of such violence. Because such misperceptions have an effect not only on victims but also on public safety, and because Ms. Dickinson’s widely heard voice is an important one, we are compelled to make several key points.
Ms. Dickinson’s apparent disdain for the judgment of the advice seeker (“Were you a victim? Yes. First, you were a victim of your own awful judgment”) is as painful a display of victim blaming as we have seen in some time. The first response to this clearly struggling young woman should have been one of empathy, not shame or blame. Even if consuming alcohol, agreeing to spend time alone with a peer, or attending a fraternity party are indicators of “bad judgment,” rape is not a justifiable consequence. Neither do these choices justify shifting responsibility for this crime from the assailant to the victim. Insinuating otherwise is not only punishing the young woman who is at the center of this case but is problematic from a public education standpoint.
Despite the fact that the advice seeker clearly indicated that she said “no” and was coerced by the alleged perpetrator, Dickinson suggests that what was by legal standards a rape may have in fact been merely a misunderstanding fueled by alcohol consumption. In suggesting that the consumption of alcohol is a great neutralizer, one that morally equates the sexual violence victim and the perpetrator, Dickinson ignores current law and decades of rape education efforts. She also ignores this fundamental truth: alcohol lowers inhibitions that might otherwise prevent behavior that is nevertheless consistent with the desire of the inebriated person (in this case, that of the alleged perpetrator). It does not unleash a heretofore non-existent urge to violate a resisting woman who has protested her attacker’s advances.
Dickinson’s imprecise use of language is equally troubling. She conflates “unwise” sexual conduct with “unwanted” sexual conduct, implying that a victim might choose (because of her attendance at a party and the voluntary consumption of alcohol) to “engage” in either or both. In fact, one does not “engage” in unwanted sexual conduct anymore than one “engages” in being robbed at knife point. Describing sexual violence as a contract negotiation gone wrong sends the wrong message to victims and the broader community, fueling social attitudes that make the world less safe and less just. Indeed, when over 80% of the rapes committed in the United States involve people who know each other – and many of those rapes involve alcohol – the symbolic and practical impact of Ms. Dickinson’s ill-considered advice is potentially quite large.
Most troubling to us was Ms. Dickinson’s assertion that the alleged rapist should be involved in discussions with his victim “in order to determine what happened.” One problematic aspect of this particular piece of advice is the presumption that this young woman cannot know what happened to her – only the accused perpetrator can tell her. From a legal standpoint, such advice is ill conceived and irresponsible: one does not direct the victim of a crime to confront the perpetrator of that crime after the fact, and on her own time. This is what the legal system is for. From an ethical standpoint, advising a victim to reach out to her alleged perpetrator is cruel, unreasonable, and likely to be traumatic (as well as ineffective). It is also, for the victim, potentially unsafe.
There is a wealth of important information available on rape and sexual abuse — information that we hope might inform future “Ask Amy” columns. Indeed the most helpful and accurate aspect of Ms. Dickinson’s answer was the information that she included from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Now we encourage her to learn more. The website of one of our Chicago-based CounterQuo partners, The Voices and Faces Project (www.voicesandfaces.org), includes the names, faces, and stories of women and girls who have lived through rape and abuse. Information about the legal response to rape and sexual assault is available from the Victim Rights Law Center (www.victimrights.org). We hope that after reading the testimony of victims with experiences not unlike the “Victim in Virginia,” Ms. Dickinson will be less likely to blame those who have lived through sexual violence for the damage that has been done to them.