Guilt and Innocence

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One common characteristic of traumatic, life-threatening situations is that victims will experience a sense of extreme powerlessness against forces that clearly do not value their health, humanity and well-being. This is not only terrifying, it is destabilizing and dehumanizing.

The good news is that a survivor of a terrifying, life-threatening trauma may be comforted and supported in the aftermath in ways that contribute to healing and recovery. This is why STAR offers a trained advocate to accompany survivors during forensic exams, law enforcement interviews, and court proceedings.

Unfortunately, we at STAR witness too many relatives, fellow community members, and systems response professionals that respond in ways that may be well-intentioned, but which are ultimately uninformed and unsupportive. This type of response can literally re-traumatize survivors who have already experienced an overwhelming, terrifying, life-threatening form of violence that another person chose to commit against them.

One advocate may do some good for a survivor, but they can only effect so much change. We need the community’s help with our efforts to support survivors in their healing and recovery, and ultimately to reduce perpetration rates of sexual violence.

We at STAR are tired of watching a well-intentioned community force survivors to endure additional toxic stress during the process of seeking accountability and justice. When community members blame, shame, question, disbelieve, or minimize the experiences of those who come forward to report that someone has committed a violent crime against them, they discourage other survivors from coming forward and reporting their offenders. Accountability for offenders is such a low priority for our community that no one is arrested, let alone convicted, for the vast majority of rapes that are committed. This teaches perpetrators that they can get away with their actions, while survivors again learn that fellow community members hold power over them and do not value their health, humanity and well-being.

Sound familiar?

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Recently, a defendant was found not guilty in a high profile rape case tried in Baton Rouge. After the verdict was announced, we at STAR witnessed public conversations in which many community members viewed this “not guilty” verdict as evidence that a false allegation was made. Because we bear witness daily to the traumatic impacts and implications of such statements on survivors and our entire community, we felt compelled to speak out and are releasing the following public statement in support of justice for survivors.

As an organization whose mission is to support survivors, improve systems response, and create social change to end sexual violence, we are saddened by the community response to a recent highly publicized rape trial that resulted in an acquittal. We understand that the criminal justice process is in place so that alleged offenders receive fair and just treatment, and we support fairness and justice for all. However, since receiving news of this acquittal, we continue to observe troubling public conversations about the outcome of this case: far too many people in our community are assuming that a “not guilty” verdict is proof that the victim in this case lied about having been raped.

For this reason, we would like to strongly and unequivocally remind the public that being found “not guilty” in a court of law does not mean that the alleged offender in question is innocent. It simply means that the jury felt it could not find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on the information they were granted access to. Furthermore, a “not guilty” verdict does not prove or even suggest a false allegation was made by the victim.

Sexual assault is a humiliating and dehumanizing act of violence that can cause irreparable damage to a survivor’s mental and physical health, emotional wellbeing and social life. In addition to the trauma of the act of sexual violence, survivors often face further indignity by being relentlessly questioned, shamed and judged about the violence committed against them.

Crime statistics consistently show that rape is the most underreported crime in our nation. A survivor’s decision not to report is rooted in the fear that they will not be believed. We are observing far too many unjust outcomes and uninformed public discussions that confirm for survivors that their fear is justified. This makes achieving our mission not only harder, but almost impossible, and ultimately leads to more survivors remaining silent and more rapists roaming free.

One in five women experience sexual violence in their lifetime. In Baton Rouge, that equates to nearly 24,000 survivors living in our community. With less than 100 rapes reported to local law enforcement each year, you can only imagine how many of these survivors continue to live shrouded in silence.

For those in our community who choose to believe that women commonly lie about rape, please be aware that the number of people who have been falsely accused of rape is insignificant compared to the number of rape survivors who have not received justice. In fact, men are more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape.

We are not looking to replace an injustice with another injustice. We simply want justice.

STAR’s social change work is guided by our vision of building a community free from oppression and sexual trauma. With positive social change, it is possible to make sexual trauma a relic of the past. To accomplish this, STAR informs, engages, and partners with youth and adults to envision and establish community solutions to the problem of sexual trauma. To learn more, call 855-435-STAR or email prevention@star.ngo.

More information about STAR is available at www.star.ngo.

 

Related Posts:

Pro(social) Tips: Responding to disclosures of sexual trauma

The Scarlett ‘R’ – Stigma, Shame and Speaking out

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