The crux of sexual violence is power and control. Perpetrators exert their power and control using any means necessary, leaving survivors feeling fearful, powerless, and voiceless. What happens then, when perpetrators have institutions behind them?
Institutional abuse and the systemic role in rape is not a new concept. Violence against women can easily be traced to the start of our nation and even long before that in our world. It began with the sexual violence against Native Americans during the colonization period. During slavery, rape of slaves was legal. Rape was outlawed during the Civil War, however, throughout the Civil War and especially after, women—in particular black women—were targeted by white men in an attempt to re-establish the institution of racial control.
Our history is plagued by social systems and institutions that allow imbalances of power and secrecy. Since the uncovering of widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, media coverage of institutional abuse has increased. You have probably heard of many of the “sex abuse scandals” coming out of Penn State, the Catholic Church, and the entertainment industry, which have all gotten a lot of attention. You may have even have heard about some others, such as the case surrounding police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw, the Marines United Facebook group, USA Swimming, and just recently coming out of the Pingry School of Short Hills, NJ and Women’s Gymnastics.
If you haven’t heard of these cases, you are not alone. Many of these cases of institutional sexual abuse are buried in the news. In the case of Women’s Gymnastics, there are over 300 girls and women who have suffered sexual abuse within the institution, at least 80 of whom were abused by the USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor. But this isn’t making headlines. There are far larger numbers of survivors in this case than the Penn State scandal. Yet, few have heard of it. This is believed to be because gymnastics is not a sport followed by many and it’s rarely covered in the media outside of the Olympics. It is an institution, but not an institution that is as beloved as football or Hollywood. One other glaring difference is, in this case, the victims were female.
Our country has a very bad history of not believing victims, especially females. Our culture is such that blame gets automatically shifted to the female victim, and she is then placed in a position in which she has to prove herself. One of the most frequently heard questions in cases of sexual assault, especially in institutional cases is, “why did it take so long for all these people to come forward?” We often hear people say a person is lying about their abuse because they didn’t say anything when it happened. Yet, in the world of sexual violence advocacy and prevention, we know that acts of sexual violence come with threats. Verbal threats, emotional threats, and physical threats. These make it difficult and at times impossible for a survivor to come forward. They are plagued with fear and shame. And our culture continues to make it harder for survivors to come forward.
The media coverage of stories of sexual violence so often focuses on the perpetrator. Who the person was, why it is so hard to believe he (or she) could have committed such crimes. When you hear about the survivors, you often hear about how they had been drinking, they had been out alone, or they didn’t remember exactly what happened. Anything to make their story implausible. We rarely talk about what the survivor must be trying to deal with. What amount of fear, shock, and powerlessness she must be feeling. We never hear about the courage it took for her to come forward. So, when survivors hear the media coverage of other stories, the additional fear of not being believed, getting blamed and shamed make it even harder to come forward.
One common theme in most cases that eventually make it in to the media, and in those that don’t, is there was almost always someone else in a position of power who knew what was happening or had suspicions of what was happening. In the recent case from the Pingry School, there are many people documented as saying they suspected something wasn’t quite right going on, and that the perpetrator’s behavior was unusual and inappropriate. In the case of Bill Cosby, many women did report what happened to them to their family, friends, and bosses. So, we are often left wondering, why did it go on for so long?
Sexual abuse is preventable. And thanks to so many strong leaders and advocates it is slowly becoming a topic that is being addressed on college campuses, in schools, within communities, and in the home. Education, intervention, and prevention work are vital in stopping this national crisis.
At YWCA Bergen County healingSPACE, we are dedicated to providing our community with workshops, presentations, and trainings that focus on education, raising awareness, and providing community members with the resources and tools for prevention and intervention of sexual violence in order to create a safe community for all. We also provide free and confidential counseling services, and support to survivors and their loved ones. For more information or to reach out for support, call our 24/7 hotline at 201-487-2227.
YWCA Bergen County healingSPACE—the only Sexual Violence Resource Center of its kind in Bergen County—is a safe and welcoming place for survivors of sexual assault/abuse, their families, and friends. Our 24/7 crisis intervention hotline (201-487-2227) provides free and confidential assistance, and trained advocates provide counseling and accompany survivors through medical, legal, or other proceedings associated with sexual violence. Support is available to anyone who has experienced sexual violence, whether it happened hours or years ago. healingSPACE offers support groups, volunteer training, and educational programs for schools and businesses, and sponsors activities to raise community awareness about sexual violence.