Sexual Assault and Social Sickness

David Ponton, III

The past year has been a discouraging year for victims of sexual assault—perhaps no more than other years have been, but discouraging nonetheless. Passersby caught Brock Turner, nineteen years old, in the act of criminally assaulting a young woman on the campus of Stanford University. He served only half of his six-month sentence, while his victim and those who have suffered similar attacks were castigated by victim-blaming editorialists and further humiliated by Turner’s apologists. Add Ohio Governor John Kasich’s suggestion that the onus of rape prevention was on the behavioral choices of young women and Donald Trump’s heinous comments about his own proclivities toward sexual assault—comments that have still failed to disqualify him from the presidency for 40% of expected American voters—and you get a sociopolitical climate in which victims of sexual assault remain unheard and unprotected. Even in the Hillary Clinton campaign, remarkable silence has surrounded the former Secretary of State’s very public role in demeaning and silencing women who, from the late 1970s and through the 1990s, accused her husband of sexual impropriety that may have included abuse. Rape culture seems a bipartisan epidemic, and its victims are suffering on multiple fronts.

Our irresponsible attitudes and behaviors concerning sexual assault are exacerbated for people dealing with issues of mental health. Thanks to a great body of sociological, psychological, and legal research, we know a significant amount about sexual assault victimization and its relationship to mental health. Leaving aside the fact that physical assaults often precipitate negative mental health outcomes, we know that individuals who suffer mental illness and who exhibit dissociative traits are more likely to be targeted by assailants. Studies reveal that while men dealing with mental illness are more likely to be robbed and physically attacked, women are much more likely to be sexually assaulted. Our rape culture, then, already puts women at increased risk for sexual assault compared to men—and I should note, this disproportionate risk appears generally true for all Americans on the gender spectrum who are not cisgender, heterosexual, and male-bodied.

Co-articulated misogyny and racism further imperil some victims of sexual assault. For women of color, stigmas surrounding mental illness—stigmas bound up in the feminization of mental illness, no doubt—become co-articulated with negative beliefs, for example, about black women’s trustworthiness, sexual behaviors, and cultural deficits to make them even more vulnerable to misrecognition in courtrooms and media stories. A recent survey found that transwomen of color report higher rates of criminal profiling, harassment, and physical assault by police officers—treatment that, for many transwomen, translates into sexual assault when jailed or imprisoned.

Age can also complicate whether a sexual assault victim might be treated sympathetically. While juries are more likely to believe the accusations of young girls against their assailants if attorneys describe the victims as suffering a serious mental impairment, juries view older women less sympathetically if they have a history of mental illness. Yet, assaults against young child rarely make it to a courtroom. Family members, friends, and trusted community leaders are the most likely assailants against child victims of sexual assault—people who know the children, recognize their vulnerabilities, and have the power to silence them. Conservative estimates suggest that four out of every five child victims of sexual assault do not make public allegations.

We have to stop apologizing for rapists, blaming their victims, and remaining silent when it is politically expedient. Moreover, we have to examine the ways our society’s misogynistic gendered beliefs, heterosexist attitudes, racist and ageist prejudices, and ubiquitous ableism variably intersect to increase vulnerabilities to assault, discursively, environmentally, and legally. That is, each of these prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory practices are the pathogens that manifest as the social disease called sexual assault and the rape culture that justifies it. We cannot be comfortable with merely charging and convicting individuals for individual acts, either. The gendered manifestation of sexual assault indicates a collective failure, and hence a collective responsibility to address the underlying causes of harassment and assault—whether in research, in activism, in law, or in volunteering—and a duty to affirm and learn from those who unwittingly carry the physical and emotional weight of our society’s grave sicknesses.