Rape Apologism Starts Early

by Cara on January 28, 2009

in education and schools, rape and sexual assault

James West, school dean for a prominent Roman Catholic high school for boys, has been suspended due to allegations that he sexually assaulted one of the students in his office. As far as this news story reports, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that the allegations are not credible and do not deserve to be taken seriously.  In fact, West has been criminally charged with forcible touching and sexual abuse in the third degree.

But of course, that isn’t stopping everyone from rushing to the dean’s defense and claiming that he could certainly never do something like that.

Among students and alumni, the arrest last week of Mr. West, 55, was met with disbelief and a chorus of support for the dean, who was also chairman of the math department and a Hayes graduate himself, class of 1972. His arrest was reported on Friday in New York newspapers.

“All he ever cared about was our learning and safety. He was real strict but cool,” Eric Hall, 14, a freshman, said Friday. “I really don’t think it’s fair to him that this happened.”

A sophomore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because school authorities had told students not to speak to reporters about Mr. West’s arrest, said: “All I know is, the principal told us some kid lied about Dean West touching him. Dean West ain’t that type of guy.”

I want to make it clear that these kids are young, and so I hold no personal animosity towards them or the fact that they made these comments.  In fact, I think that choosing to interview them, even anonymously, when alumni are also allegedly rushing to West’s defense, could be considered quite exploitative of these teenagers.

But that doesn’t stop me from being concerned about their comments.  It is, in fact, their age that tends to concern me most.

On the one hand, we can hope that they’ll outgrow the view that “I like him, so he couldn’t have done this bad thing” — but of course we know that far too many adults also hold the same one.  After all, as the article says, adult alumni have similarly defended West against the allegations.  And I also find it frightening that even at this age, teens are receiving these types of rape apologist messages.  Either they’re being taught this kind of thing by our society directly, or we are critically failing to teach them the opposite.

I’ve long lamented the fact that no one wants to think that someone they know, let alone love, might be a rapist.  And they will contort all logic and facts to find a way to either assert that the allegation is a total lie, as done here, or that the allegation in question just doesn’t count as rape.

This may, to some extent, be human nature.  But it’s also incredibly dangerous.  Rape and sexual assault victims already face an uphill battle to be believed (rather than asked questions about what they were doing, what they were wearing, and how forcefully they said “no”), and to have outsiders so vocally rally around the accused is especially damaging and alienating.

We also know that these views are not benign when it comes to an actual conviction. And I wouldn’t doubt that they hold equal sway with regards to internal investigations of such serious allegations, in addition to criminal ones.

So back to the question I began with.  What are we teaching these kids, or failing to teach them?  Why are they so readily rallying around authority rather than one of their peers, even if his name is unknown?  Did the principal actually state, as suggested by the quoted sophomore, that the allegations against West are a lie?  I hope not, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t heavily imply it.

It’s true that West could be entirely innocent.  Maybe he’s not that kind of guy.  The odds are heavily against any particular sexual assault allegation being fabricated, but it’s still possible. The fact is, however, that we don’t know whether or not he’s that kind of guy.  And neither do these students, just by their virtue of having interacted with him.

Clearly, we’re not giving kids the tools they need to understand that there is nuance between good and evil, and that committing good actions doesn’t mean you’re incapable of also committing atrocious ones.  Surely, we shouldn’t be teaching them that they can’t trust anyone, but shouldn’t we be teaching them that unquestioning trust is dangerous?  That sometimes those we see as “good people” can do bad things, and vice versa?

And how are these kinds of attitudes going to play out when one of their peers is inevitably accused of sexual violence, someday?  Well, I think we  know the answer to that.  What we also know is that this cycle of disbelief over sexual violence starts early.  And there should be things that we can do, just as early, to prevent it.

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{ 20 comments }

1 James January 28, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Perhaps they’ve been taught that a person is innocent until proven guilty? But I don’t want to get into that. I don’t know the man, and at this point he’s just as likely to be guilty as he is to be innocent. If he is guilty and he isn’t convicted for the crime he’s committed, it’ll be a severe injustice and of course things should be changed. But that is self-evident.

You bring up several questions, but do not begin to answer them. So, I ask you, what would you have done? What changes in the education system would you implement to get these kids to question authority, to see the ‘nuance between good and evil’, to end the cycle of disbelief?

From what I’ve read of your blog I find you intelligent and opinionated, so surely you must have some opinions on this and I imagine they are very good. Offer them, for God’s sake!

2 Renee January 28, 2009 at 1:43 pm

“All I know is, the principal told us some kid lied about Dean West touching him. Dean West ain’t that type of guy.

It is that statement that bothers me the most. The assertion that the victim is indeed lying. Why is the accused always given the benefit of the doubt while the victim attacked and publicly shamed? If true the principal had know business making such a judgment call and then poisoning the minds of impressionable children. It sickens me. Time and time again in rape cases, sexual abuse etc the fault is always the victim. We give far to much value to power in this society and no respect or sympathy to the weak and abused.

3 Fionnabhair January 28, 2009 at 4:19 pm

I wonder how much of the statement that “Dean West ain’t that type of guy” is denying that West is a rapist, or is it denying that West assulted a boy? Is there some homophobia lurking here, as well as rape apologism?

(Not that West assulting a student makes him gay, of course, but there might be that perception.)

4 Ashley January 28, 2009 at 5:06 pm

You bring up several questions, but do not begin to answer them. So, I ask you, what would you have done? What changes in the education system would you implement to get these kids to question authority, to see the ‘nuance between good and evil’, to end the cycle of disbelief?

Yeah, Cara! Where is your comprehensive educational policy proposal?

A good rule of thumb: no one should ever point out a problem with the status quo unless they know exactly how to fix it, and can lay out their specific plan for radical overhaul of our entire culture in the space of a blog post.

5 James January 28, 2009 at 5:23 pm

*shrug*

None of those words you were so kind enough to put into my mouth have anything to do with what I was asking. I merely want to hear Cara’s ideas on the subject. I’d like to hear yours as well. Would you like to hear mine?

The fact that we’re at this site at all means, to me, that we’re all past the point where we need it pointed out to us that there’s many things wrong with the current system. I was simply trying to generate discussion about what to do about that fact.

6 Chris January 28, 2009 at 5:24 pm

It’s not a simple matter of educational policy. In fact, I’m sure if we dug through the school handbook, there’d be all the right phrases about a very strict rules against sexual abuse and so forth. They might even have class assemblies on the subject. The point is that in our society in general, shaming the victim is ingrained in our heads from an early age. Which I thought was the whole point of the post.

7 Chris January 28, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Besides, on this blog, Cara is doing what she thinks we need to do about it. If she sees something that promotes rape culture, she calls it out. She gets pissed off and writes letters and calls attention to it. She challenges people who are being dismissive and complacent. We can debate policy all we like, but we won’t make any progress until enough people express outrage at this kind of thing.

8 James January 28, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Education system, in the home, in the community, whatever. Let’s not get caught up in semantics. The point is that Cara broaches three specific areas she sees a need to change, and ends her post with the claim that there are things that can be done to change them. I say, “Yeah, there are…don’t stop there. What do you think they are? What would you do?”

I’m not attacking Cara. I’m here because I respect Cara and her opinions, and I question her to get more of them. I want to start a discussion because I find ideas and contemplation much more valuable than outrage.

9 abyss2hope January 28, 2009 at 7:14 pm

James wrote: “Perhaps they’ve been taught that a person is innocent until proven guilty?”

Actually, this possibility has been ruled out because the alleged victim has been publicly assumed to be guilty and will be viewed as such until that boy proves himself innocent.

10 Chris January 28, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Look, I’m not on the warpath either. Thoughtful conversation on the subject is important – I’m just wary of the issue becoming a detached theoretical discussion on the educational system. Outrage is equally important in this case.

I still think the solution boils down to what Cara has already said:

Surely, we shouldn’t be teaching [chilren] that they can’t trust anyone, but shouldn’t we be teaching them that unquestioning trust is dangerous? That sometimes those we see as “good people” can do bad things, and vice versa?

We can go more specific and say that parents should be teaching these things to their children. How do you form a specific plan to change parenting techniques? Are you thinking federal legislation, or putting fliers in mailboxes, or influencing churches in some way? Beyond raising public awareness – which, as I said, Cara already does with her writing – what kind of solutions do you have in mind?

11 Chris January 28, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Also, I can’t spell.

12 James January 28, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Thank you, Chris! :-)

To begin with, I found the quote you posted to be an area Cara wanted to see changed rather than a proposed solution. “How can we teach students that unquestioning trust is dangerous?” in addition to “What can we do to stop the disbelief cycle?” and “How can we give children the tools to see the nuance between good and evil?”

The question underlying all of these is, of course, “Why do all these people feel the need to defend the alleged abuser?”

I don’t want to get didactic, so I’ll only pose a quick idea to get things rolling. I think a part of the underlying issue comes from the fact that rapists and sexual abusers are among the only people left that are dehumanized as a social rule. From childhood we are taught that they are The Other, sub-human, predators. You aren’t supposed to know a rapist, to have talked and smiled with one, to have cared about one, to be the responsibility of one. I imagine to have done these things, even unknowingly, feels like a betrayal, in a very deep and fundamental way, not only of yourself but of everybody you know. And so they deny that it could possibly be true, because that’s the only way they can live with themselves.

As I said, only an idea. I have no experience with this sort of situation. If I ever become a parent, to counteract such an influence, I would try my best to teach my child that there is no Other. That nothing a person can do can make them less than human. That no matter how heinous the actions of a person it does not exempt them from compassion.

Alright, enough of that for now. Lost is almost on. I’ll be back in an hour.

13 abyss2hope January 29, 2009 at 12:02 am

As for the question of what should change, the critical shift is for all school administrators to honestly approach all allegations as credible (this can be done without assuming the accused’s guilt).

All school employees must treat children who report abuse with respect and model that respect for their students. If the alleged victim has a reputation as a bad kid that must not change the school’s approach. Being labeled a bad kid doesn’t come with magical protective properties. A child with a history of lying may be more vulnerable because rapists know the truth is likely to be dismissed as just another lie.

There should be no talk of false accusations unless the allegation has been proven false. Instead of speculating about false accusations, school employees can express their commitment to having investigators find out the truth whatever that is and to protecting children from harm.

School employees should acknowledge that their feelings that an allegation is false are meaningless. Unless the school system is corrupt nobody would hire someone they wouldn’t be shocked to hear had been accused of rape.

14 karak January 29, 2009 at 12:21 am

We teach our children to know and love the people that they meet everyday. We teach them to trust their teachers, their family, their neighbors, their preachers.

A relative of mine was accused of serious sexual abuse of a child. And I had to sit down and look into my soul about what I was going to do. And I concluded that the claim was false, for reasons I have to justify to no one but the Divine.

I still don’t know if I made the right choice. But, please, please, truly try to imagine a faceless, unknown, anonymous person accusing someone you trust with your life and body of rape. And it seems so wrong it simply cannot be true.

15 James January 29, 2009 at 3:52 am

You make a good point, karak. As children we are taught to trust all those people you mentioned and more. As adults that never really goes away. There are certain people (positions, really) that a great number of people never grow out of trusting.

I’m sorry that you had to face such a grave decision. No one can know how they’ll act in any given situation until they are faced with it.

16 abyss2hope January 29, 2009 at 9:54 am

Karak, you may not have to be accountable to other people for what you assume, but you do have to be accountable for what you do and say based on an assumption rather than on proof.

Many people who believe that a false allegation has been made turn around and make false allegations of their own against those who were really raped. These people don’t get a free pass for the harm they do — even if they believe they are making a true allegation.

17 Betty Boondoggle January 29, 2009 at 11:45 am

“And I had to sit down and look into my soul about what I was going to do. And I concluded that the claim was false, for reasons I have to justify to no one but the Divine.”

Of course you did. You have no personal, first hand knowledge of the situation and you have personal ties to the accused. It’s entirely unsurprising that you chose your relative.

its an impossible situation to be in, there’s no other choice you can make. Were I in your shoes, I’d likely do the same thing.

That’s a far cry though from the “she’s just a lying slut” type of false accusation Abyss is talking about.

18 abyss2hope January 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Betty, I’m talking about more than overt statements such as the one you provided. What people say and do when they believe the alleged rapist can and often does create a hostile environment for not only one alleged victim, it can create an environment where children are taught by example that the adults they respect will side with most of those who are accused of rape and therefore the safest thing to do if they are abused or raped is to never disclose.

19 Renee January 29, 2009 at 2:21 pm

If I may add my two cents. I really believe in the home as a place of resistance. Many of us do not exist with the power to make change on a larger basis but what we can do as feminist parents is to teach the next generation these basic lessons. The more of us that encourage our children to not only think critically but from a social justice point of view the better in the long run our society will be. Imagine how the responses of these kids would have been different had they been taught about how rampant victim blaming is in our society? If patriarchy can indoctrinate the young with sexism we can dismantle it with feminist parenting.

20 Stephanie January 29, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I think it’s incredibly unfair to claim that unless we can immediately present solutions to societal issues, we have no business to point such issues out. Victim-blaming in cases of sexual violence is a society-wide problem, and once we, as a society, can recognize that it’s wrong and unhealthy, then we can begin to solve the issue.

The point of this article is that we should be angry at what is happening; we should be angry that a student was assaulted, and that everyone is congregating to protect the accused attacker. False reporting for sexual assault is very, very low, and so while it’s true that the accused attacker is innocent until proven guilty, the flaw in our society when it comes to sexual violence is that the victim also must be considered innocent.

Instead, in order to preserve the idea that the attacker “must” be innocent, people do their best to discredit the victim, to blame him or her, to turn the tables so that it’s really the attacker who is being victimized by some immoral person who wants to ruin the attacker’s good reputation.

I agree with Renee–the best solution here is not to necessarily make changes to school policy (while that wouldn’t be a bad idea, it also wouldn’t necessarily solve much), but to raise awareness about this issue so that as we raise the next generation, they grow up understanding that sexual violence is never the fault of the victim.

Feminist parenting and feminist policy will help, but so long as there’s the attitude that we can’t raise awareness without presenting the perfect solution, we’re never going to get anywhere.

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