Speaking of Women's Rights: Blaming the Victim, Again

Friday, April 29, 2011

Blaming the Victim, Again

As April draws to a close, we’re marking the final days of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Recent news from Lynnwood, Washington shows just how badly this awareness campaign is needed.

Three years ago, an 18-year old Lynnwood woman reported to the police that she had been raped. Although the police opened an investigation, they concluded that the victim was lying. But the case didn’t just end there. City prosecutors charged the woman with false reporting of a crime. To avoid a trial, she ended up pleading guilty and paid a $500 fine.

But earlier this month, the Lynnwood police were contacted by Colorado police, who had arrested a suspect in connection with a series of sexual attacks in the Denver area. When searching the suspect’s home, the Colorado police found images of the Lynnwood rape victim from the 2008 attack. The suspect has now been charged with rape in Washington.

Lynnwood’s Police Chief has admitted “we were wrong.” But at the same time, the chief appeared to justify the way the victim was treated, saying that her “story changed and details appeared to be inconsistent” and “people who know the woman also spoke to detectives and expressed doubts about the woman’s story.”

In response, the Everett Herald ran a scathing editorial that addressed each of these rationales for turning a rape victim into a suspect, noting:

  • How many interviews does it take before a traumatized victim might begin to feel like a suspect?

  • Are people who have experienced a severe emotional and physical trauma expected to have a totally consistent story?

  • Perhaps scariest of all is the information that “People who know the woman also spoke to detectives and expressed doubts about the woman’s story.” Isn’t that known as hearsay in other parts of our justice system? Do other crime victims require character witnesses?

But while the Everett Herald gets it, many public officials still don’t. It’s no secret that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, with an estimated 60% of sexual assaults going unreported. But instead of trying to encourage greater reporting, many officials treat women who do report rape as suspects rather than as victims.

In Lewiston, Idaho, for example, police officers told reporters several years ago that they believed most rape reports in the city were false. In Georgia, a state legislator introduced a bill this year to re-define rape victims as “accusers” in the state’s statutes. And in Pennsylvania, a woman who was sexually assaulted while working at a convenience store was not only disbelieved by police, but spent five days in jail on charges of false reporting and theft from the store. The charges against her weren’t dropped until her attacker confessed to the crimes after he was arrested for committing another sexual assault.

Back in Lynnwood, the police chief has said “we’re doing our best to make it right.” Let’s hope that means the city will agree to pay a huge monetary settlement to the victim, rather than making excuses for how she was treated. But even more, let’s hope this horrible case helps stop police in Lynnwood, in Washington, and across the country from treating rape victims like criminals.