It's a devastatingly damaging secret that no one wants to talk about, least of all the young victims it violates. Rape is still the most under-reported crime in the United States among both adults and adolescents despite progress in victim's rights advocacy. According to the U.S. Justice Department, teenagers are at the highest risk; 44% of rape victims are under the age of 18.
Many teen rape survivors fear reporting the crime for a variety of reasons such as lack of parental support; retaliation; feeling nothing can be done; distrust of law enforcement; and a new potential threat - cyber bullying. Thus, every year thousands of teens continue to suffer in silence at alarming rates. This vow of silence helps mask the true horrific nature of rape and the emotional, physical, and psychological trauma that coincide with it. Teens inherently understand what the rest of us often do not - that the consequences of "telling" do not always outweigh the risk of being bullied.
Why Bullying Rape Victims is Different:
Bullying is an issue that deserves merit and warrants punishment.There is a distinction between being bullied and being bullied because you were raped. The difference lies in fact that a violent crime has been committed against the person being bullied and her traumatic experience is invalidated, abused, and verbally or physically used against her. Once word of a teen's rape reaches the teenage gossip-mongering masses, a victim's reputation, self image, and what she has left of her dignity and self-esteem are often stripped away by an emotional thrashing of extreme proportions. In fact, teen rape victims often tell me that bullying during the aftermath of their trauma is psychologically equivalent to or worse than the actual rape itself. Rape survivors are emotionally re-traumatized which can exacerbate symptoms of depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, and suicidal ideations.
Our American culture has shifted over the years in part due to the rise of the social networks and online forums teens now use for socializing. The ferocity and relentlessness of the attacks launched in cyberspace leave teens wondering why they every would report rape - it's simply too dangerous and the possible consequences too devastating. Take the case last year of fourteen-year-old Samantha Kelly who tragically took her own life after it became known that she was raped by an 18-year-old male acquaintance. Kelly was not only brutally bullied at school by her peers but she was outed on Twitter by the same teen who sexually assaulted her. He not only blamed the assault on her but he also tweeted how she has ruined his life. It's easy to see how this type of behavior would discourage rape victims from reporting their rape, and more importantly, prevent them from getting the help and support they need to heal and recover.
Blaming the Victim:
Rape victims have always had to defend themselves against rumor, innuendo, and harsh societal judgment. Yet it wasn't until William Ryan's book Blaming the Victim identified the term "victim blame." Rape is the only crime in which the victim is consistently blamed for her trauma and made to justify her feelings and accusations. We live in a society that still shuns rape because people continue to believe rape myths that make it difficult for victims to receive support from their peer group. Popular myths include: she's lying to get attention; she has emotional or psychological problems; she said yes and now feels guilty; and she hates men. These false ideologies seek to discredit a rape survivor's experience and promote untruths that permeate teen society and instantly label and place rape victims in a unfavorable light casting doubt on their stories and - even worse - supporting and protecting their rapist.
The Pack Mentality:
"I was suddenly an outcast. I couldn't go through the hallway without being called a skank or a whore. I started getting kicked and shoved and pushed. People threw things at me. People dumped drinks on me. I found notes in my locker giving me step-by-step directions on how to kill myself and do the world a favor. I had a girl scream at me in the middle of biology about how that boy would never touch me and I could only dream of a guy like him."
-- *Sam, raped at age 16.
Why do teens gang-up on rape victims? One likely prospect is that teens, like adults, find it terrifying to believe that there may be a rapist among them because that means they could also become a victim. Instead, adolescents often project their own insecurities onto the person who is the most vulnerable. Teen bullies bury the truth in the lies in order to justify their own safety and that of the larger social group. It's simply too horrific to acknowledge that someone they know or care about is capable of rape, therefore they reason, it could not have happened at all. This cognative process allows the group to keep the "it won't happen to me" ideology alive and well in a teenage world where nothing could be farther from the truth.
The constant barrage of attacks are aimed at eliminating the "trouble maker" from school in order to maintain the status quo. Physical attacks, threats, destruction of personal property, and cyberbullying make it easy to scare rape victims into submission. Eventually, rape victims begin to feel so alone, anxious, and depressed, that they no longer has the strength to stand up to the bullies and either withdraw altogether from high school social life, move to a new school, or attempt to take matters into their own hands by self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, self-mutilation or other negative coping mechanisms. Many of these issues happen simultaneously - and unfortunately, most of this goes on without parents every knowing.
What Happens Next?
It seems unconscionable that teens would brutally attack one of their own because they were raped. Yet it happens every minute of every hour of every day in schools across America. While some schools have taken a very tough stance against bullying, the problem does not always lie with the punishment of the bullies - it lies in the fact the victim will usually never tell, and thus the torment continues unchecked as does her inability to get help and recover. A rape survivor who is bullied is far less likely to tell their parents, friends, or teachers because not only do they fear retaliation by their peers, but they also fear retaliation by their rapist and even their own parents. Teens are often afraid that their parents will find out about the rape and will be angry with them for not reporting it in the first place or refuse to believe that it even happened at all.
Allowing our youth to suffer in silence - humiliated and degraded by their rape and then re-vicitimized by society - is a travesty of justice and can have psychological ramifications that will severely impact the rest of their lives. We know that "going it alone" is one of the biggest mistakes rape survivors can make but they are often forced to do so by a culture that continues to discredit and minimize their trauma. In addition, minorities are saddled with additional burdens of blame that make coming forward extremely difficult such as socioeconomic status, racism, prejudice and gender bias. How can we expect that rape survivors will ever feel free to report their crimes if they cannot be assured that they will be respected and protected? Until our society can find a way to support the undeniable truth that rape happens and is never the victims fault, we will all have to take firm steps to continue to educate our teens about rape and bullying and continue to find ways to support them in order to ensure that rape is not a crime that will forever be suffered in shameful silence.
*The names of rape survivors have been changed to protect their privacy.