I love Missoula, the diversity of its people and the small-town, friendly feeling that most of us experience living here, and I find recent sexual assault cases and the subsequent damage to our community disheartening.
The divisiveness between Missoulians that has resulted from recent sexual assault and cover-up allegations strikes a personal chord with me. I was involved in a recent case after learning that someone very close to me was victimized. While coping with the truth and some horrifying evidence that was found, local law enforcement was my lifeline. I learned a lot, and many of my opinions changed through my ordeal.
A huge disconnect exists between what police, psychologists and victims understand about the complexity of sexual assault and what the public understands. This divide makes communicating about these issues and reaching solutions nearly impossible. Coming out of denial and into reality, in many cases, takes time and support. There are a multitude of reasons why victims often don’t report these crimes initially. And there is an all-too-common response (known as victim-blaming) by some once crimes finally are reported. It’s the knee-jerk “what was she wearing” or “where was the mother” response, which shows ignorance and encourages victims to remain silent. Stunned by cruel, hateful responses from the abuser’s supporters in my situation, Missoula City Police guided me through the legal process and helped me understand that these things are to be expected from closed-minded people who have also been manipulated by the perpetrators of these crimes. The victim herself, just a child, was punished for revealing a truth that, undoubtedly, provided justice for other past victims and prevented further future victims.
We all hate rapists, sexual abusers and pedophiles in theory, but people rarely stick to those ethics once they learn that they know and trusted one. People who commit these crimes are “regular guys.” We teach our children about “stranger danger” and, at the same time, teach them to respect and obey the adults in their lives that we love and trust. Unfortunately, 90 percent of sexually abused children are victimized by someone their family loved and trusted. One in five girls will be raped during her college years by someone she knows, yet we worry about strangers hiding in bushes while giving complete trust to the cute guy from the sports team.
I’m not implying that anyone in recent news is guilty of alleged crimes—that will be determined in time—simply that we, as a community, are painfully naive when it comes to education and awareness of sexual assault. While they’re unpleasant to talk about, we need to understand the complex psychology of these crimes if we are ever to have productive discussions about them. In the long term, we need to educate parents and children about what the real dangers are; in the short term, those who choose to blame anyone but the criminal in these cases should spend a quick 10 minutes doing online research with an open mind. Relying on outdated, preconceived notions simply isn’t working.