Doubt: The Cornerstone of Condoning Rape
Dedicated to Marie (A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America); to myself; and to all other survivors of rape. All the odds are against us, but we are not alone.
The question I’d like to ask Marie, even after the truth came out, is if she had to do it all over again, would she still call the police? Would she still come forward? Would she tell Peggy? Shannon? She was burned at the stake for telling the truth saturated in doubt as kerosene, everyone she told threw lit matches on her. Would she do it again?
In the Salem Witch Trials, the only way the defendant (witch) could prove she wasn’t a witch was by succeeding in a challenge where winning meant death. If she didn’t succeed, thereby proving she was a witch, then her judgment was death. The prosecution of a rape victim is similar to the prosecution of the witch. Everyone in the room is sizing up the witch and determining her evilness, finding reasons to condone her unwarranted death. Everyone is looking for the witch’s culpability; how her wicked magic caused bad things to happen to good people. How it is her fault she is a witch and because she cannot prove she is not a witch, she should die.
The Salem Witch Trials mirror the entire experience of a rape victim. Everyone she tells is looking at her and sizing up her believability. She is responsible for proving that the rape happened. If she cannot prove that it happened, it is acceptable, even encouraged to doubt, that it happened at all. The person on trial is the victim. She must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was raped, or her perpetrator will go free. This is the reverse of every other court proceeding. This process goes back centuries, but it stands on no legal precedence. It is prominent men throughout history condoning rape and pardoning rape by suggesting that the credibility, the mental status, and the sexual proclivity of a woman should all be considered before prosecuting her claim of rape. It is powerful men suggesting women need violent sex to enjoy it. It is men saying that women are emotional and vengeful. It is powerful men condoning rape, discrediting the severity of rape by devaluing women as whole, suggesting to doubt it ever truly happens. Most insidiously, is its indoctrination into the culture; the words were followed by action. Doubt follows the woman that claims violence, sexual or physical from a man: this is how we are taught it should be. Those that don’t buy into it suffer consequences: social, emotional, financial, physical, etc. Being on the outside of accepted cultural constructs makes one more susceptible to abuse, trauma, and isolation from those within that construct. Many will stay the course. Marie was doubted and she lost everything, literally, everything.
As the centuries have passed, rape has progressed without change to its frequency or violence or commonality. These words floating through history suggesting if a “woman cries rape, question everything about her, before destroying a man’s life. Doubt. Doubt. Doubt.” These fraudulent, offensive ‘rules’ add fuel to the fire of any attempt to a woman reporting a rape. “Doubt afflicts every stage of a rape prosecution”(Miller & Armstrong, p. 218). This is from the onset, starting with the victim’s own response to the trauma, then moves steadily through those the victim encounters if the victim reports. Doubt is viral: so much so, that regardless of what physical evidence may be present, DNA included, the jury is not sold on a guilty verdict of rape. Whereas, in comparison, when other types of cases are tried (murder, robbery, etc.) DNA is usually the deciding factor of guilt. Not so, in the case of rape, the victim’s credibility decides the verdict.
Historically, rape has its own ‘guidelines’ that date back to biblical times, and have molded by the likes of Sir Matthew Hale (Lord Chief Justice of England in 1671), Thomas Jefferson, and John Henry Wigmore until the 1970s and 1980s (Miller & Armstrong, 2018). The myth that they rely on is two-fold: one, that men are the protectors, the leaders, or the heads of the tribe (the dominant/superior role); and two, that women need men to protect them, lead them, and head their tribes and women are emotional beings who need men’s guidance (so women are submissive/inferior role). If all parties subscribe to this myth, then the rape victim is doubted on both sides. The men, superior, can take what they want, and do, and the women, who need the men, will believe that the victim did something to signal she wanted to be raped or that she is emotional and being vengeful by accusing a man of rape. All parties subscribe to the notion that the victim is culpable for her own rape, thereby excusing the man of true responsibility or guilt, and maintaining the ideological construct of men as the powerful, needed leaders and women as the submissive, needing followers. Everyone was content with Marie being a liar; the world went back to how it was supposed to be. Marie was shattered, but she ‘lied,’ so it’s ‘right’ she is punished.
No matter how people subscribe to this myth, as long as they do, rape victims will always be doubted because the patriarchal setup reinforces male dominance and superiority, as well as female submissiveness and emotionality. This sets up the dichotomy that we saw in the book, where Peggy and Shannon are unable to believe Marie. Instead, they are searching for reasons not to believe her. Like good society members they run to the police with their little bones of doubt to contribute against Marie. They would rather find a reason to blame Marie for falling out of the ideology that constructs their working worlds (as well as the legal and judicial system and our culture), then challenge those constructs and stand behind Marie as she challenges the patriarchal culture in her pursuit of justice. They do not want to be collateral damage. They would rather cut her out of their lives then challenge a cultural construct that has been in place for centuries.
This behavior, doubting the victim of rape is a cultural construct. The victim even does it to herself/himself. The vast amount of underreporting glaringly suggests that victims understand the persecution they will face, the doubt they will endure, and the centuries of historical precedence condoning rape that has never been undone. They know those who report can suffer extreme consequences, socially, emotionally, financially, and often these consequences far outweigh the punishment their offender will receive. Its amazing people come forward even when they known all of this. Marie came forward, was doubted, recanted, came forward, was threatened, recanted, and she was telling the truth. The doubt is so forceful even the truth shutters.
What frustrated me most about this story was that as the truth was revealed and everyone found out Marie was telling the truth, it felt like Marie was vindicated. It felt like a ‘happy ending,’ when the damage was already done. An atomic bomb decimated Marie’s life, because of Peggy’s phone call. Patsy apologies and money do not make up for the irreparable damage and trauma led by insidious doubt and enforced with the cruelest of tactics. If the system is going to change, then maybe we are focusing on the wrong pieces to change. The ramifications of doubt from those involved in the process of reporting and prosecuting rape is what caused the most significant damage. This is where the problem lies. So this is where the fixing needs to start. Developing a system that is streamlined, evidence-based, and victim-centered is absolutely necessary to even begin addressing the epidemic of rape. Everyone needs standardized training. The process for questioning needs to be done with trauma training, it needs to be specialized for sexual assault victims, and it needs to be replicable. Opinions need to be left out. It’s a crime until a jury decides on guilt or innocence. Even how the trial is presented should be considered, maybe the victim can give her testimony via facetime, or the accused can be on facetime.
The advocate needs to be present in all settings, to mediate and to observe, so the victim has someone there, and so the process has a witness who can give feedback to each party. The cases need to be reviewed. If a witness recants, another person needs to be brought in to confirm that with the victim. The ramifications for doubting the victim or being caustic to the victim need to be high and serious, so that every going in, understands that giving the benefit of the doubt that it happened far outweighs the consequences of acting like it didn’t happen.
Changing a cultural construct can seem insurmountable, but if we can address part of the process that is most infected, victims may feel more comfortable coming forward and pursuing legal justice. The more victims that come forward, the greater the opportunity there is to challenge the cultural construct. We cannot change the victims, we cannot change the construct, and so we must look at how we can change the system. If doubt exists on every level of prosecuting rape, eradicating that doubt with education, training, and consequences for those that buck the system could be a new way to challenge a heartless, but age-old, debilitating construct that has been the cornerstone of condoning rape for centuries: doubt.
For Marie -
And when the smoke settles, ash covers everything, charred branches still glow orange, no one else is there, she is alone, burned, eyes stinging, covered in soot, marked as a criminal, the only sound is the crackling of the few branches lit with small flames, and her breathing. Everything else is still because everything else is gone. It is just she and for now, that is the only way she is safe.
Miller, T. C., & Armstrong, K. (2018). A false report: A true story of rape in America. New York: Crown.