Once again, we are in a news cycle where powerful, famous men's sexual assaults are being made public. The men say the sex was consensual, meaning, of course, that no one forced them to do anything they didn't want to do. The men say they now know their conduct was unacceptable. Scores of courageous women disclose private, humiliating, and hurtful events. Then we have a national conversation about what women should do to avoid sexual assault and sexual harassment, because, you know, men are men.
This conversation makes the assumptions that women should be responsible for avoiding unwanted physical contact because men don’t know what’s the wrong thing to do and so can’t stop doing it.
These assumptions were reflected in traditional rape laws. Until the 1970’s, only women, not men, could be victims of rape. The woman had to prove that she physically resisted her attacker, which usually required proof of some physical injury other than the sex act to get a conviction. Defense attorneys attacked the character of the woman victim, including her physical appearance and her past sexual conduct. It was no wonder few rape charges went to trial because rape victims were treated differently than victims of other crimes.
Since then, the law has changed – rape is now called criminal sexual assault, the physical injury requirement is mostly gone, and the defense can only question the victim’s ability to tell the truth in the same, restricted way that is allowed in all other crimes. But the way we talk about these crimes hasn’t changed. We have not changed our basic assumptions when women accuse men of sexual assault, sexual harassment or any other kind of unwanted physical conduct.
I taught Criminal Law for 28 years at WIU. We spent considerable time studying the various crimes of sexual assault and sexual abuse in the Illinois Criminal Code and the factual situations that result in criminal charges. Every semester, without exception, one or more students brought up the old assumptions, usually starting with the question of “Shouldn’t the woman have dressed differently/ acted differently/ not gone with that guy in the first place?”
I answered with a series of my own questions:
If a man wearing an expensive watch and an expensive suit gets robbed while walking home at night, do we ask why he walked home in the dark all alone? Do we ask why he was showing off his wealth by wearing an expensive watch and suit? Do we question whether he resisted to his utmost? Do we say well, he was just asking to be robbed?
If a person lives in a 3-million-dollar house with an original Picasso on the wall and the house is burglarized, the painting stolen, do we ask why the Picasso was displayed so prominently on the wall and why the person had to have such an expensive house? Do we talk about how that person should have added more security so they didn’t tempt the burglar?
If someone is driving late at night and gets hit by a drunk driver, do we tell that person they should have known better because that is when there are a lot of drunk drivers on the road? Do we say, sorry for your injuries and car damage, but please don’t drive at night anymore?
No, we don’t say any of these things, because sexual assault is the only crime where we focus on the victim’s looks and actions and not the defendant’s actions. It’s the only crime where we assume the victim should have done something to avoid the crime.
We’ve changed our basic assumptions in lots of situations. Over the past decades we stopped using ethnic slurs in conversation and when they appeared in school mascots and team names. We’ve changed the way we refer to people of color and people with disabilities. We changed language to focus on occupation rather than gender - mail carrier, police officer, flight attendant.
Here’s more. Women become firefighters – notice I didn’t say firemen – and men become nurses. Domestic violence is no longer a private family matter. Smoking cigarettes is bad and seat belts are good. We no longer try to judge a person’s intelligence by the bumps on her skull. The world is round and not the center of the universe. See where I’m going with this?
If we stop asking about a woman’s physical appearance and actions, and start focusing on the perpetrator’s actions when we have this particular national conversation, we will take an important step in changing the basic assumptions we make without thinking the next time a famous, powerful man’s sexual assaults are in the news.
As Dolly Parton said, “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.” Time for a new road.”
Gayle Carper is a member of the Macomb City Council and she is a retired attorney and retired Professor of Law at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.