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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Anonymous words become weapons against sexual assault victims

By Roseann Moring
March 19, 2010 | 12:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Last month, a 22-year-old woman awoke, disoriented, to find a condom wrapper on her night stand and a hazy memory of her night, even though she'd only had three drinks.

Before she knew it, the town's news media, including the Missourian, had reported what police said had happened to her, minus her name. Then came the public dissection, which is an all-too-common experience for victims of sexual assault.

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The first commenter at the Columbia Daily Tribune story offered this gem: "sorry but the 22 year old probably wanted it." (The Tribune's Web staff removed the comment, but not that of a commenter who quoted it.)

Sorry, what?

That's not all. The story was about that case and another of a woman who told police she'd gone into a man's room and he'd raped her, even though other people were in the apartment. Here's a sampling of the Tribune site's comments, all anonymous:

Eventually, other commenters stepped in and pointed out that having sex with a woman who has passed out is rape and consenting to kissing doesn't mean consenting to sex.

But you wouldn't know those things from the public dialogue surrounding rape, and that hurts everyone.

Telling even a friend or family member about a sexual assault can be intimidating.  The challenge is magnified by the myth that rape victims are somehow at fault for what happened to them — that they could have prevented it.

So when victims hear from their friends or from their community, that they must have been at fault, some start to believe it. Then they don't go to police, or they don't want to follow through with prosecution, a process that is difficult in the best of times.

What that means to me, or to you, or to your sister or mother or friend, is that an overwhelming number of rapists go free, knowing there are no consequences for their actions.

Or, worse, they don't learn that what they've done makes them a rapist.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts and Brown University School of Medicine did a study in 2002 that asked men at universities whether they'd participated in sexually predatory behaviors, without using the words rape or sexual assault.

They found that 120 of the 1,882 men surveyed had engaged in such behaviors, including having sex with someone who didn't want to do so. Many didn't know that they were rapists.

Rape doesn't have to involve force, and it doesn't have to involve "date rape" drugs. If one party does not consent — including when that person is too intoxicated to consent — that is rape. There's no gray area. There either is consent or there isn't, and it's the task of people who engage in sexual activity to make sure they have it — beforehand.

When the dialogue surrounding sexual assault focuses on how women can avoid becoming victims, that puts the onus on us to prevent an attack. Don't wear short skirts, we're told. Travel in packs, or better yet, with a man. But don't go in his room alone. Watch your drink. Don't drink. Carry Mace.

But the burden should not be on victims to prevent crimes. No one blames mugging victims for failing to keep their wallets under lock and key. No one blames burglary victims for leaving their homes unattended.

And even if everyone kept a wallet under lock and key, even if everyone put armed guards in front of houses, theft would still exist. Even if all young women stopped showing skin and eschewed alcohol (something most people don't expect young men to do), rapists would still rape.

"I can talk to victims about trying to reduce their freedom, and nothing I tell them will prevent rape," said Kelley Lucero, the outreach coordinator at The Shelter, which provides services for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

So, if we want rapists to be prosecuted, the change needs to start with self examination. Do you find yourself thinking that if a person has been sexually assaulted, surely he or she did something to deserve it? Does such thinking make you feel that this could never happen to you or someone you love? That's the basis for "blame the victim" thinking. And it has to stop.

Lucero said she would like to see more men get involved in sexual assault advocacy, through organizations such as Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault. She calls it "Making advocacy cool."

MU Athletic Director Mike Alden does this well. Alden doesn't just tell his athletes how they can avoid being assaulted. He tells them how not to assault. More people should follow his example.

So, dear readers, a challenge: Read Thursday's article about sexual assault and think about the questions it raises.

And next time you're commenting on any Web site, just remember:

You might be anonymous, but your words still have an effect — and not just on people struggling to recover from a sexual assault. The words keep alive the central myth about rape: that victims ask for it and that assailants can't be expected to tell a "no" from a "yes."

Moring is a senior journalism student and an assistant city editor at the Missourian.