As some of you may already know, April is Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month. As the month goes on, you’ll probably be hearing a lot about sexual assault, both online and off. If you’re on a college campus, you might be attending, or even organizing an event. If you are, I tip my hat to you. If you’re not, get on it! One of the most important parts of raising awareness of and preventing future assaults is humanizing it, connecting the statistics and the abstract concepts with a name and a face and a story. To do that, we need as many people as possible to publicly demonstrate that they care about ending sexual assault, to come out this month and show that they’re not silent bystanders, but engaged citizens who won’t tolerate sexual assault in their communities. Last April, I was lucky enough to meet with a woman who’s on a global mission to humanize the problem of rape and sexual assault, and who’s committed to helping women all over the world recover from their own assaults.
In 1998, Linor Abargil was raped and almost murdered in Milan, Italy, where she had been working as a model. Six weeks later, she was in Seychelles, representing Israel in the Miss World competition. She won. Immediately after the rape, Linor went to the Italian police who, in cooperation with Israeli authorities, began working to apprehend the rapist, an Israeli citizen. Almost as soon as she was crowned Miss World, the Italian press got wind of what had happened to Linor, and “overnight I became the face of rape victims around the world,” Linor says. In the weeks and months that followed, the rapist, an Israeli travel agent to whom a homesick Linor had gone to for help getting a ticket out of Milan, was arrested and sentenced with sixteen years in jail.
“During the trial,” Linor writes, “I had to relive the events, and face the rapist’s denials. I advised other women not to be afraid of reporting their rapes, and to seek punishment for the perpetrators. As a result, there was an increase in the rate of rape victims reporting the crime in Israel.” More than a decade later, Linor remains committed to her belief that no woman should be ashamed to report or speak openly about being raped. She has teamed up with Cecilia Peck, the award-winning producer of Shut Up and Sing, to make a documentary about her experience in Milan, and about her efforts to encourage other rape survivors to come forward and tell their stories.
I had the opportunity to meet Linor last year when she spoke at my campus Take Back the Night event, and filmed a group of campus activists in a roundtable discussion about campus rape and sexual assault prevention. Not long after she visited us, Linor met with rape survivors in New York, and wrote the following on her blog:
For many of them, it’s very complicated, and I just see it as a crime. I don’t think it has to be easy, it has to be hard. It was a very traumatic experience. But I definitely cannot understand the shame associated with it. How can you feel ashamed, for what? I understand where it comes from, but I cannot agree with it. It comes from parents making their daughters feel like they’re second hand, or it comes from their friends talking about it at work… But feeling ashamed? It’s a crime that someone has to be punished for, that’s it. The rapist is the only one who should feel shame. Make everybody talk about him at his job, make his family and his friends talk about him. Make everybody know that he’s a rapist.
Linor is right, of course. Rape is a crime, and as with all other crimes, the only shame felt should be felt by the criminal. Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way, and rape remains, in 2010, a crime for which victims are just as likely to be blamed as perpetrators. Like Linor, I understand where the shame that these women feel comes from: It’s not just from parents and friends, it’s from an entire culture.
It’s warnings to young women that walking alone or wearing revealing clothing or drinking too much will “get them” raped. It’s media vilification of women who allege rape and defenses of the men they accuse. It’s the argument that rape is a “miscommunication” rather than an assault, implying that rape victims are responsible for their own rapes if they fail to communicate clearly enough. It’s politicians who claim, unfathomably, that scantily clad pop stars somehow send teenage boys the message that rape is acceptable. This is rape culture, and one of its major goals is to ensure that women who are raped, and not the men who raped them, feel ashamed.
The shame is real, and it has real policy implications: Until we can break the cultural connection between rape and shame, rape will continue to be woefully under-reported and under-prosecuted. After all, why come forward if you know you won’t be taken seriously, if you know you won’t see justice done? Until we break that connection, rape prevention programs will continue to tell women not to “get themselves” raped, rather than teaching men not to rape.
Linor is traveling the world with her documentary crew to speak with survivors of rape and to encourage them – and other survivors – to overcome the shame and silence around rape, and to tell their stories and press charges. If you would like to be involved, if you have a story that you’d like to share with Linor and potentially with an audience of thousands, you can contact her here.
If you aren’t a survivor, you can still do something to break down the barriers of silence and shame that make rape possible. April is Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month, and events are being held all over the country. To find or advertise an event near you, go to the Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network (RAINN) website, where you can also make a donation and find out about volunteering opportunities.