What I Was Trying to Say about Rape and Blame and Teachers and Teens
I got into a discussion that became an argument yesterday, on Facebook. I know, I know, that’s a bit ridiculous in itself. A Facebook argument with people I don’t really know, who don’t know me and don’t have any context for the things I say, is probably not all that productive. But I began clarifying my thoughts, and that led me to this post today, so maybe it was helpful
It started with this article by Betsy Karasik entitled “The unintended consequences of laws addressing sex between teachers and students.” But the more popular reference to it was “Sex between students and teachers should not be a crime.”
Background. Earlier in the week, a judge had released the teacher who raped a 14 year old girl. The girl killed herself, the rapist served 30 days in jail. Even when he violated the requirements of the treatment program he was attending, the rapist was not held accountable. The judge’s comments blamed the victim and revealed a total lack of understanding of how rapists function. There was a huge outcry against the judge, and, as I write this, it seems possible that both the rapist and the judge may experience some strong consequences.
Then comes Betsy Karasik’s article, suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t criminalize rape when it’s an adolescent and a teacher, that maybe teenage girls aren’t completely victims, that maybe men can’t really help themselves and we’re being unrealistic to expect them to.
Let me be perfectly clear. I do not agree with her. Do NOT agree. Do NOT AGREE. DO NOT AGREE with her.
Background. I’m a therapist – mental health – and I work primarily with people who have experienced abuse, particularly sexual abuse. One in four, or maybe one in three, women experience some kind of sexual assault or molestation. One in six men. That’s not always the issue my clients come to therapy to address, and it’s not always *the problem,* but it’s often part of the story.
So I’ve spent a lot of time listening to people talk about their experience of abuse. What happened, what they thought at the time, what they think now, and how they feel. I’ve got extensive training in a number of approaches to working with trauma, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Processing Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. I can talk all day about trauma and survivors and healing and moving to thriving ~ and will if you get me started. But I’m going to try to really stay on track here, which means I’m leaving out a lot more than I’m saying.
I believe that when people are abused, two things that happen that contribute greatly to long-term emotional suffering afterwards. First, we don’t experience our feelings when the trauma is happening. We’re focused on surviving. It’s not safe to feel our feelings, we just need to get through the trauma. And that’s protective. Numbing out or dissociating protects us from feeling the full impact of what’s happening.
That’s really helpful at the time, and helps us survive. But. It creates a whole new set of problems if we’re not able to reclaim the feelings and process them later – and really, who wants to do that??
The second thing that happens, typically, is that the victim ends up feeling like it was their own fault the trauma or abuse happened. Perpetrators of sexual abuse ~ and our culture in general ~ have a real talent for victim blaming in a way that often completely convinces the victim. From “I shouldn’t have gone to Walmart at night” to “I should have known better than to go with him,” to “But I wanted it ~ it’s totally my fault ~ I actually started flirting with him!” the victim is convinced something they did caused the abuse.
I don’t believe the victim is ever responsible for getting raped. People get raped because they cross paths with a rapist at a time when they’re vulnerable. It is always the rapist’s fault.
But believing that we had some control over the situation sometimes helps people believe that we can keep it from happening again. It feels protective. The desire to believe we can keep ourselves safe is really at the heart of lots of victim blaming.
So ~ when I first start working with a client, often, they’ll say, “Here’s what happened. I know it wasn’t my fault.” Then they tell me 35 other things that suggest they’re living their life like they totally think it was their fault.
And at some point, they say, “I know in my head that it wasn’t my fault ~ and that’s what everyone tells me ~ so I don’t know why I still feel like it’s my fault. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
That’s a powerful moment. The confession “I still feel like it’s my fault” carries a load of shame.
Carl Jung says, “Shame is a soul eating emotion.” Brené Brown says, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
If I try to convince my client that it wasn’t their fault, that they shouldn’t feel like it was, I am adding to the shame they already carry. I’m dis-validating their feelings, telling them they’re wrong to feel the way they feel ~ which is part of what helps create the shame in the first place.
It’s more helpful to point out that of course they feel that way, it makes perfect sense, and then begin to look at how that works.
So that’s what I heard when I read Betsy Krasik’s article. I heard the same thing my clients often say ~ particularly ones who were teenagers when the abuse happened. “Men can’t control themselves,” “I was mature for my age,” and “I wanted it. I asked for it.”
I have no idea if Betsy Krasik was speaking from her own experience or other people’s ~ and I don’t think it matters. She’s not my client, and I’m not particularly concerned about changing her mind. But.
It seems like people are responding to Ms. Karasik the same way they dd to the judge who made the victim-blaming comments and the poor decision in sentencing. As if she should never have voiced the opinion, as if just saying her thoughts out loud was wrong.
Ms. Karasik got the “Asshole of the Day,” award. Someone said she had “just given a free pass to pedophiles,” as if her article would allow pedophiles to feel justified. Just for the record, pedophiles don’t need a free pass ~ they act based on their own motivations and already feel justified.
But I think our response to Ms. Karasik adds another layer of shame for people who have those thoughts. She isn’t a judge; she isn’t making decisions that affect sexual offenders. She said something that lots of people secretly believe. If we yell at her and act like she’s awful for saying those things, we pass that shame on to people who have the same questions, carry the same doubt.
We need to refute what Ms. Karasik says. We need to explain why she’s wrong. But we don’t need to act like she’s wrong for saying it. Lots of people won’t speak up because they *know* it’s *wrong* to feel that way. But if we can’t talk about it, how do we process those thoughts? How do we find “the facts of the matter”?
I think Ms. Krasik did us a service by speaking her mind. She opens the door to having a real conversation about it with people who secretly think she’s right. I don’t want to vilify her and shame her for speaking up. I want to thank her for putting her ideas out there. That’s what I was trying to say on Facebook yesterday.
“If we are going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To set down those lists of *what we’re supposed to be* is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”
― Brené Brown