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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 1, 2009

Crush the stigma of rape: A brave new world awaits

Illustration by Forest Byrd

A story told by a courageous young woman led our newspaper last week. A 17-year-old Guilderland High School senior who we called Rachel told how her life was changed when a co-worker attacked her. The man who assaulted her, Jeffrey Orsini Jr., was later arrested for rape of a girl younger than 15.

The alleged rape occurred the day after Orsini, 20, pleaded guilty in Rachel’s case to endangering the welfare of a child. Rachel, who had been 16 when Orsini attacked her, wanted to talk to us because she had read about his arrest in our newspaper.

“When I read about the other girl getting raped, I just started crying,” she said.

“We honestly thought that, by pressing charges, we were preventing this from happening again,” said her mother.

Rachel should be proud that she spoke out and stood up for what was right. It wasn’t easy. She described to reporter Anne Hayden how Orsini for months had grabbed her or tried to kiss her. “I’d just tell him I wasn’t interested in him that way,” she said. “But it seemed like he considered that a challenge.” She told of the day in February when he cornered her in a back aisle of the store where they worked and tried to kiss her and touch her, and how she shoved him away and tried to leave.

“It was like a scene from a horror movie,” she said. “It looked like he was moving really fast, and the hall seemed like it was really long. I just had a bad feeling. I knew I had to get away.”

She tripped over a ladder and was caught and pinned by Orsini, she said. “He was feeling me up and he tried to stick his hand down my pants,” she said. “I think I kicked him.” Orsini was unzipping his pants when a co-worker came around the corner, and Rachel fled, she said, to another female co-worker.

“I told her what happened and she told me I shouldn’t tell anyone because I’d end up getting Orsini fired,” said Rachel. “She told me he didn’t do anything. She said I was asking for it.”

Those last words are worth highlighting: “She said I was asking for it.”

No woman asks for rape.

“As a society,” said Ellen Schell, the legal director of the Legal Project, which provides low-cost legal services to survivors of sexual assault, “we don’t deal with sexual assault very well. There are still some people who believe the woman is to blame, and other people who just don’t think it’s a big deal.”

Sexual assault is a very big deal; it can alter a woman’s life irreparably.

Rachel is fortunate to have loving support from her family, but she is still feeling the effects of the attack. She has horrible nightmares, is uncomfortable being touched, and no longer feels safe — even at home.

One response we got from last week’s story was a call from another Guilderland mother who said her daughter, at 14, had been raped this year by an 18-year-old. Her daughter, she said, had waited several weeks before telling even her parents about the rape; with no physical evidence, there was no prosecution. Rape is a lot more common in Guilderland than people realize, the mother said.

We believe her.

The great majority of rapes across the nation are not reported to police. According to FBI estimates, only 37 percent of rapes are reported. The statistics from the United States Justice Department are even lower — just 26 percent of all rapes or attempted rapes are reported to police.

Only crimes of sexual assault leave victims unwilling to tell police. This is something that, as a society, we need to change. The silence is hurting us and it re-enforces a stigma that should not exist.

“I would say fear is the biggest deterrent to women reporting sex crimes,” Schell told us. This fear compounds the problem. When victims remain silent, the perpetrators of sexual assault go unpunished. If they were jailed, they wouldn’t be able to repeat their crimes.

Speaking out is not easy. Although rape crisis hotlines and centers have helped, survivors of sexual assault still must re-live their trauma as they testify in court. And for states without rape shield laws, victims often feel on trial themselves as defense lawyers trot out their sexual history in court.

“A lot of women are afraid no one will believe them because we’re not totally past the point where women are blamed for this kind of thing,” said Schell. We need to stop the stigma. In no other crime does the victim feel shame.

We wrestled with this as a newspaper in withholding Rachel’s real name. She is not to blame for the crime against her. She should be proud of how she responded and of how she spoke out — first to police, then in court, and then again to our reporter. Why should we hide her identity?

Because we’re dealing with reality, not an ideal world. We’re living in a time and place where revealing Rachel’s identity could make her a target or could unfairly change the community’s view of her. We commend Rachel. We need to change the community.

We can lobby for changes in our laws for harsher sentencing and for efforts to increase support funding and self-defense training. And we can take small steps close to home. The mother of the 14-year-old who called this week said that health classes stress how to prevent sexual assault, but should also teach what to do if it happens. She is right.

We also need to educate boys and men. The she-asked-for-it mentality puts blame and restrictions on women — they are told not to dress suggestively or not to walk alone at night — that are undeserved. We are reminded of a story about Golda Meir when she was prime minister of Israel and her cabinet advised a curfew for women to protect them from rape; she responded that, since the men were doing the raping, they were the ones who should be off the streets at night.

An international organization called Men Can Stop Rape has as its mission “To mobilize men to use their strength for creating cultures free from violence, especially men’s violence against women.”

The organization, founded in 1997, doesn’t view men as “the problem” but rather as “vital allies with the will and character to make healthy choices and foster safe, equitable relationships.” Among other programs, the group offers gender-based violence prevention programs in schools and supports middle-school Men of Strength (MOST) Clubs.

Until there is a enough of a needed shift in our society, precautions for women are still needed, but individuals can make a difference.

In 2002, we wrote a similar story about a Guilderland High School student we called Julia who, at 16, had been sexually assaulted by a 61-year-old man in the restaurant where she worked. The night she was attacked, she said, the manager told her, “This was blown out of proportion; you brought this upon yourself, you look and act a lot older than you are…”

Julia decided she would go to school the next day; no one would know about it, and she would put it behind her. But a teacher made a difference. “I needed someone to talk to,” she said. “The teacher was supportive. I was a mess.” Julia went to the police that day and pressed charges. Later, she spoke to classes at her school about her experience.

Each of us needs to be supportive if we have the chance. We need to let Julia and Rachel and others like them know they are not to blame. The shame is not theirs but ours for allowing our society to be so skewed in its values that victims feel they cannot come forward to report the crimes against them. Justice must be served.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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