HARD TO BELIEVE: Conditions that Discredit Victims of Sexual Assault and Sanction Esteemed Offenders.

Author:Heller, Sheri
Position::Essay
 
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In Greek mythology, Cassandra is the beautiful young mortal pursued by the god Apollo. To convince her to give into his advances, Apollo promises to bestow upon her the gift of prophecy. Although Cassandra is obviously flattered that an Olympian god would seek her favors, she isn't sure she wants to take him as a lover. Still, unable to resist the gift he's offered, she accepts his tutelage. Hence, Apollo takes her under his wing and teaches her how to use her prophecies. Once the mentorship is finished, however, Cassandra refuses to give her body to Apollo. Furious at being rejected by a mere mortal, Apollo first rapes her and then levels a terrible curse upon her head. While Cassandra can still foresee the future, the curse ensures that not only will no one believe her, they'll think she's purposely telling lies. Ashamed of his daughter's supposed madness, Cassandra's father King Priam pronounces her insane and locks her inside her own chambers. Denying his daughter altogether, he tells people that she has died. Those who already know of her predicament simply don't care since they too think she's either deranged or a pathological liar.

The myth of Cassandra dramatizes how critical truths, allegations, and warnings can be ignored, silenced, and even chalked up to madness. In real-world situations, if these declarations emanate from a person of inferior stature, those who possess greater power and prestige can easily call into question their lessor's reputation, motives, and even their sanity. When these power differentials are supported by an ethos that espouses rigid gender roles and sexism, and perpetuates a power-submission paradigm that fuels cultural wounding, this further strengthens the campaign to silence a problematic female instigator. Indeed, in the domain of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault this scenario is common.

Our patriarchal society communicates a male ethos through its norms and conventions: aggression and power are the index to masculinity, and passivity and submission are the index to femininity. Women are to defer to masculine strength and men will ostensibly protect women who defer. The insidious impact of the male ethos is reflected in the pandemic threat to women of domestic violence and rape. In fact, according to World Bank data, women aged fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be victims of rape or domestic violence than to suffer from cancer, car accidents, war, or malaria. Regardless of cultural or religious backgrounds, socio-economic status, or appearance, women are susceptible to abuse, oppression, and victimization. Violence towards females is universal.

My work with women from diverse walks of life has taught me that the most heinous behavior can lurk behind the most reputable looking door. For example, the upper-middle-class white American girl whose father is a pillar of the community lives in terror of the concealed violence and rape she encounters in her home. Unlike the young girls or women in Afghanistan or Somalia who are subjected to the most barbaric human rights violations in a climate of impunity, she is ostensibly privileged. Yet the resultant scars and psychological traumas predispose her to depression, suicidal ideation, addictions, and myriad psychiatric disorders. Her attachment template is mired in exploitation and betrayal, and hence she re-enacts these dynamics in her adult life by selecting partners who replicate her unresolved traumas. The unhealed wounds of her past tragically perpetuate the cycle of violence and abuse in her life.

Although there is sweeping historical and global evidence of sexual violence towards women, it's only within the past fifty years that fundamental shifts have occurred in the United States. Prior to the advent of the women's movement in the 1960s, police departments and hospitals lacked trained trauma counselors and procedures for collecting evidence of rape or testing for sexually transmitted disease. The publication of Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book Against Our Will coincided with the...

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