WHEN CHESSY PROUT was sexually assaulted by a classmate at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, she was so badly bullied by her classmates and others in the community that she was ultimately forced to transfer schools and leave the state in order to protect her own emotional health and safety. After her attacker was tried and convicted, she made the choice tell her story publicly, sharing her experience of being humiliated, bullied and ostracized because she came forward and reported a sexual assault.
Her experience, even though she ultimately chose to allow herself to be identified, is in a very real way, exactly why the media should never identify victims of domestic and sexual violence in their reporting without their permission.
While it is encouraging to see advances made in law and policy, we still live in a society that responds in a very destructive and damaging manner to victims of domestic violence and sexual crimes. Victim blaming and shaming continues to be the unspoken policy at schools and places of work across the country and, unfortunately, right here in NH, where victims continue to be intimidated and threatened by their attackers.
Last week we learned of the, at best counterproductive and at worst disastrous, manner in which officials at Concord High School handled claims of sexual abuse directed toward their students.
In one case, a female student was sexually assaulted on a school bus by a male classmate and threatened by him after she reported the assault. Rather than holding the perpetrator accountable, the school determined that the assault was “unwelcome sexual contact” but did not technically violate their sexual assault policy because she was too afraid to say the word “stop.”
Their response was to counsel the girl to try to avoid her attacker in school hallways.
In another case, when a middle-school student in Concord filed a report about a teacher behaving inappropriately with other students, she was suspended for spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip.”
That teacher has since been arrested and charged with repeatedly sexually assaulting a middle school student.
Many make the argument that victims of domestic and sexual crimes should be treated just like any other crime victim by the news media, but this argument ignores the very unique nature of these crimes. Women who report sexual crimes become vulnerable to revenge assault by their perpetrators, they are publicly humiliated and subject to the most ignorant element of so-called rape culture when they are blamed for the crime that was committed against them.
Too often, the first reaction people have to reading a story about rape or sexual assault is to question the victim. Why was she there, what was she wearing, did she lead him on, why didn’t she fight back or scream louder or, as stupid as it sounds, just tell him to stop?
This is ignorant, humiliating and dangerous. When someone breaks into your home and steals your television, we don’t tell you it’s your own fault for having such a nice TV.
The continued ignorance of the very nature of these crimes — that they are crimes of violence and control, not sexual encounters gone awry — endangers every victim of sexual and domestic violence.
Governments and court systems recognize this, even if the media does not. That is why every single state, the federal government and the military have all passed rape shield laws that protect the privacy and reputation of victims. Historically, rape cases were tried against the victims. Under these laws, irrelevant information that in the past would have been introduced solely to cloud justice is no longer admissible.
When the media names the victims of these crimes, they do the same thing. They make it impossible for victims to protect their privacy and their reputations, preserve their dignity and they increase the risk that they will be re-assaulted by the criminal. It is possible to report responsibly on these cases without naming the victims.
We have a long way to go in destigmatizing these crimes and empowering women to come forward and be heard. We must provide support, dignity, and privacy as they go through the justice process. Furthermore, the media must end the practice of identifying by name people who have suffered violent, dehumanizing sexual and domestic assaults. It is the only decent thing to do.