Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Misplaced Empathy

An article in the New York Times appeared on Sunday about how the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) is advocating for gun owners’ rights in states that are seeking to put into place laws which would demand perpetrators to relinquish firearms when they have a domestic violence protection order placed against them. This article bears a similar theme to the recent Steubenville, Ohio high school rape case that continues to be the latest in “controversial” rape cases brought to national attention, following big name cases like the Jerry Sandusky trial in 2012. The New York Times article and the Steubenville case both are examples of misplaced empathy.

For those who have not been following the news on the trial, the Steubenville, Ohio rape trial involves two high school students, both star members of the football team, who digitally penetrated a sixteen year-old girl after a party in August of 2012. The victim was intoxicated. A confusing web of text messages, videos, and pictures followed the rape, essentially broadening the incriminated parties and re-victimizing the sixteen year-old girl. It remains to be seen who else, aside from the two football players, will be prosecuted in the case (last I read this morning sixteen more people are facing charges).[1] The two football players, however, were found guilty, and they are facing time in a juvenile detention facility in addition to becoming registered juvenile sex offenders.[2]

The controversy I mentioned in the introductory paragraph comes from our society’s perception of rape. First is the controversy surrounding the rape itself. Many are refusing to believe that this girl was “actually” raped, since if she did not want the activity, she would have done more to prevent it (even worse are those who claim that since she was intoxicated, clearly she was “looking” or “asking” for it). That is called victim blaming, and is a big big big big big big BIG problem in our society.

Victim blaming, essentially, is misplacing the blame for rape or violence on the victim instead of the perpetrator. It happens all the time. Like literally, ALL THE TIME. How often do you hear it said that the victim was asking for it, or should not have been wearing what (s)he was wearing. How about saying instead, why did the perpetrator rape someone? One might further hear it said “well, I would never let my daughter go to a party dressed like that girl was” or “the girl should not have been drinking.” This basically is saying that the rape is the victim’s fault. Yes, the girl should not have been drinking as she was underage, but being drunk, underage or not, does not mean she deserves to be raped, nor does it mean that if she is raped, it’s her fault! The perpetrators of the crime, the rapists, are ignored, the blame resting firmly on the victim.  

Or, when the perpetrators are discussed, they are given pity.  Several news outlets, including CNN, are focusing on the once promising future of the rapists that is now dashed due to the rapists being labeled as convicted juvenile sex offenders. For instance, Poppy Harlow of CNN said this about the rape: “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”[3] Or when Paul Callan, a legal expert, explained to Candy Crowley, a CNN news anchor, that “The most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders… That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see that they’re registered sex offenders. When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet, where these things are posted, neighbors will know that they are registered sex offenders.”[4] In other words, these poor two young men being forced to have this awful label put on them that will ruin their lives! How sad, let’s feel pity for them. Meanwhile, the victim’s life was already ruined by the crime, having pictures of her posted all over the internet, and having to go to school with the very people who both raped her and stood idly by while she was being carried out of the house.  Not to mention lasting psychological effects, like PTSD, that may—and often—occur after being put through the traumatic experience of your body being violated. How about how the crime will most likely haunt her for the rest of her life? But no pity in this report on the verdict is spared for the victim, only for the rapists. 

This is called misplaced empathy by many who work in agencies dedicated to preventing and helping victims of sexual assault. Simply put, misplaced empathy is when one empathizes or pities the perpetrator of violence and/or sexual assault instead of the victim. Misplaced empathy was seen a lot in the Jerry Sandusky case with people saying the charges against him were everything from unfair to false. Never mind the victims.

This is where the New York Times article comes in. The article, “In Some States, Gun Rights Trump Orders of Protection” by Michael Luo, examines the N.R.A.’s long history of defending the rights of gun owners over and against those of victims of domestic violence.[5]

The N.R.A. cites violation of gun owners’ second and fifth amendment rights in many of these cases (fifth amendment in that it would make the defendant admit fault by turning over weapons before guilt has been established):

In statehouses across the country, though, the N.R.A. and other gun-rights groups have beaten back legislation mandating the surrender of firearms in domestic violence situations. They argue that gun ownership, as a fundamental constitutional right, would not be stripped away for anything less serious than a felony conviction—and certainly not, as an N.R.A. lobbyist in Washington State put it to legislators, for the “mere issuance of court orders.”[6]

On the other side are the domestic violence agencies and others who say that in the instance of protection orders, “the most volatile of human dramas,” “the right to bear arms must give ground to the need to protect a woman’s [or man’s] life.”[7]

Once again we have a case of misplaced empathy. The N.R.A. is empathizing with gun owners (obviously), but doing so while turning a seemingly blind eye at the victims of domestic violence. And what makes it especially depressing is the statistics:

Intimate partner homicides account for nearly half the women killed every year…. More than half of these women are killed with a firearm. And a significant percentage were likely to have obtained protection orders against their eventual killers. (A 2001 study, published in Criminal Justice Review, of women slain by intimate partners in 10 cities put that number at one in five).[8]

With statistics like these, it makes sense for courts to at least consider taking away firearms from people convicted of domestic violence. As Kristine Hall, policy director for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance said in the New York Times article, “There’s often recognition that firearms and domestic violence is a lethal combination, but it’s followed quickly with concerns about taking away an individual’s right to possess a firearm.”[9] Misplaced empathy. You can’t cry “oh, my rights are being violated by the courts taking away my weapons.” No, when you beat or rape someone you are infringing on their rights so it makes sense that you no longer get to have the rights to bear arms. (It’s also interesting to note, though, that when it comes to gun manufacturer cases against gun owners/consumers the N.R.A. seems to give up its interest in preserving gun owners’ rights in favor of that of the manufacturers).[10]

By no means am I trying to say that rapists and perpetrators of domestic violence do not deserve empathy. They are still people. Many with proper counseling and batterer intervention programs can relearn how to be in healthy relationships with others and most, if not all, feel remorse for their actions. The misplaced empathy occurs when the empathy shown towards the perpetrator of the crime grievously outweighs, belittles, or is at the expense that of the victim. In the report by CNN on the Steubenville rape trial, there was little said on the victim at all, precious air time devoted instead towards selling the story of these two high school athletes whose lives are ruined by this court system. As Mallory Ortberg of Gawker.com wrote:

It's perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence; it is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists' future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect. Their dreams and hopes were not crushed by an impersonal, inexorable legal system; Mays and Richmond raped a girl and have been sentenced accordingly. Had they not raped her, they would not be spending at least one year each in a juvenile detention facility….

Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond are not the "stars" of the Steubenville rape trial. They aren't the only characters in a drama playing out in eastern Ohio. And yet a CNN viewer learning about the Steubenville rape verdict is presented with dynamic, sympathetic, complicated male figures, and a nonentity of an anonymous victim, the "lasting effects" of whose graphic, public sexual assault are ignored. Small wonder, then, that anyone would find themselves on the side of these men—these poor young men, who were very good at taking tests and playing sports when they were not raping their classmates.[11]

Pity and empathy is not a zero sum game. One is allowed to feel pity for both parties—the victim and perpetrator. After all, it really is sad that these two high school students effectively ruined their chances at going to a great school on a football scholarship and have to go to a juvenile detention facility. But that pity should not come at the expense or as Ortberg put it, nonentity, of a high school student who was raped and now has to deal with lasting effects of that sexual assault. Likewise, it is sad that a gun owner may no longer be allowed to have weapons as a result of a protection order filed against him/her, but the lasting fear and especially safety of victims of domestic violence should not be ignored or outweighed by the rights of the perpetrators. It’s time we stopped worrying so much about the rights, hopes, and futures of perpetrators and instead start acknowledging the rights, hopes, futures, not to mention safety and needs, of the victims. After all, their lives may depend on it.

[1] http://www.onenewspage.com/n/Celebrities/74vr1pqo4/Steubenville-Prosecutors-Say-16-More-Minors-Face-Charges.htm
[2] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/17/17346127-verdicts-in-steubenville-high-school-rape-trial?lite&gt1=43001
[3] Embedded Video, http://gawker.com/5991003/cnn-reports-on-the-promising-future-of-the-steubenville-rapists-who-are-very-good-students
[4] Ibid.
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/us/facing-protective-orders-and-allowed-to-keep-guns.html
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] http://www.vpc.org/fact_sht/nraindus.htm
[11] http://gawker.com/5991003/cnn-reports-on-the-promising-future-of-the-steubenville-rapists-who-are-very-good-students


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