My friend Barb has a great post--and one totally outside the usual subject matter for her blog--about the Tory Bowen rape case and her own related experience. I strongly suggest reading it, and I'm not going to rehash all the facts here. In case there's anyone who has been away on Mars for the past few days, Tory Bowen is an "alleged" rape victim whose case did not end in conviction after (coincidentally, I'm sure), the judge banned the use of all relevant terminology from the courtroom. That's right...can't use a nasty, prejudicial word like "rape" in a rape case. Can't describe a "rape kit" as a "rape kit", even though that's what they've been called since their inception and the way that all professionals in the fields that use or rely on them refer to them.
As a former criminal defense attorney, I probably find the judge's ruling less shocking than a lot of people. I'm very familiar with the process of pre-trial motions to exclude preducial language and information--even information everyone in the room knows to be true. And there's a good reason for that process.
But it can be equally prejudicial to prevent a victim--or any witness--from providing testimony in terms that make sense to him or her. That's true because the language impacts the way the story is received, the way a jury perceives the victim's (or witness's) actions and reactions, and it's also true because when a witness isn't allowed to express him or herself naturally, it leaves him searching for words, pausing, rephrasing, or using prepared phrases that can impact the perceived truthfulness of the testimony.
There's a legal issue here that will undoubtedly be dissected and determined in days to come. I may even do some of that dissecting myself. But today, my interest is more in the way the human issues affect the legal treatment of sexual assault cases, and the way that legal treatment in turn affects public perception, and the vicious spiral it creates.
Before I'd graduated from college, two of my closest female friends had been violently sexually assaulted, one at knifepoint by a stranger who'd broken into her apartment. Their reactions were very different, and they expressed themselves very differently. Any psychological professional will tell you that's very important, that people who have been traumatized are free to express themselves in the way that works for them. Tory Bowen, obviously, didn't have that freedom, and depending upon whether the case is appealed (and the outcome of that appeal), the case may kick off a long line of cases in which women aren't free to tell the whole truth about what they experienced.
And that will take us another step down the road back to the world where women knew better than to tell.
Teenage girls are molested every day and don't tell their parents because they think they'll be blamed, or because they think they won't be believed. Women are sexually assaulted every day and don't report the assault because they think that they'll be blamed, or that they won't be believed. Often, they're right. And, far worse, often they buy in to that perception.
Many years ago in another state, I happened to see the same man acquitted of two different rapes. Of course, I knew things the jurors did not--most notably, that at least three women had independently accused this man of sexual assault under similar circumstances.
After one of the trials, a juror made this statement: What happens between people of that nature is not our concern.
Of course, I disagree for a lot of reasons. I disagree because all people deserve respect and protection, regardless of walk of life, education, race or anything else you might be able to dream up as a reason to devalue a person. I disagree because even if you somehow believed that some people didn't count, I couldn't see any reason this woman might have fallen into the "no" column.
And--probably most important to those who would make such a statement--I disagree because I know quite well that what we tolerate, what we close our eyes to, what we make acceptable WILL come back to haunt us. Because when we create a culture that says it's okay to force sex on some people under some circumstances, or that it's wrong but really not such a big deal, or that the person who says she was sexually assaulted or molested is probably exaggerating, or any of a hundred other things we like to say in order to close our eyes to ugly realities in this world, we edge our world a little closer to a place where it's just okay across the board.
The woman it's "okay" to assault because she was drunk in a bar in revealing clothing slides into the woman it's "okay" to assault because she was in a bar alone, even though she wasn't really drinking much. And then if it's okay to assault women who went to bars, isn't it okay to assault women who go to big campus parties and drink? And then, is a big campus party really so different from a smaller party of mostly friends and acquaintances, but where you know some people will be drinking? And one day...lo and behold...that middle-class juror who didn't think we should concern ourselves with such things gets a phone call from her daughter, who was raped on her way home from a fundraiser for the College Republicans...and that's perfectly understandable, really, because after all, they served cocktails at the fundraiser, and the girl was walking back to her dorm late at night. And then...
But no. That won't happen, will it? Because that girl will know better than to tell her mother, or anyone else, what happened to her.