We seem to be moving beyond the need for the perfect victim. We no longer require a bruised and bloodied virginal innocent to make us believe that sexual assault and domestic violence occur at astounding rates in the U.S.
Significant steps are beginning to be made toward preventing assaults and trying more cases. More importantly, we are asking ourselves why it took us so long to reach this crucial level of understanding.
We may see evidence of this hard-won and long overdue evolution in the scandals surround the NFL and Rolling Stone magazine.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently issued more stringent standards for dealing with alleged sexual assaults and domestic violence by the league’s players. The changes were unanimously approved by the NFL owners on Wednesday.
We all know Goodell did not come to this place of understanding easily.
It took massive public outrage at the two game suspension initially slapped on former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice — the equivalent of a child’s timeout in the corner — after video went public of him dragging his then-girlfriend (now wife) out of a hotel elevator.
The sheer volume of outrage forced Goodell and the league’s owners to take domestic violence seriously — to recognize it as their problem. The public understood that, even before video of Rice making the punch emerged.
After weeks of hot media attention, Rice seems to be wriggling off the hook. In recent weeks, his penalty of indefinite suspension was reversed through arbitration. And his wife has come forward with her version of that night — a retelling that downplays her role as a supposed victim of domestic violence.
Still, nobody needs Janay Rice to volunteer as poster woman for domestic violence. We all know it’s a problem in the NFL, and in society, and we can no longer look the other way. Increasingly, fans are unwilling to support a league unfettered by reckless, violent and possibly criminal behavior off the field by players.
As for Rolling Stone, it offered up a snapshot of society’s attitudes toward sexual violence, but not in the way it had intended. In November it published a harrowing account of gang rape and bureaucratic bumbling over that rape at the University of Virginia. As the story lit up the Internet, details soon emerged showing inaccuracies and disregard for reporting standards. No fraternity event was held on the night she claims she was attacked by seven members of Phi Kappa Psi, among other discrepancies.
As the story imploded and Rolling Stone editors backpedaled and apologized, many feared the controversy would taint the credibility of other campus sexual assault claims, making young women less willing to come forward if attacked.
The University of Virginia’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, could have cited the apparently shoddy journalism at Rolling Stone as vindication. But she didn’t. As the story unraveled, she was quoted saying that the school was “more focused than ever.” “We will continue to take a hard look at our practices, policies and procedures,” she told the New York Times.
The university has to because it is being watched by a public increasingly more aware of the scope of campus sexual assault, just as the NFL will be scrutinized.
The Rolling Stone story didn’t hinge entirely on the supposed victim’s questionable narrative of her attack. It also outlined the patterns of how such cases typically get handled, showing that victims can be inadvertently influenced not to report. And those problems exist at other campuses as well.
Despite the scandal, the Rolling Stone story nonetheless has stimulated valuable discussion. For perspective, realize that it was only in January that President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to squarely address campus sexual assaults when he created a task force to study the problem and issued guidelines for universities.
The Department of Education has been investigating more than 80 campuses for their policies and procedures. Congress stepped up as well, with significant work done on the issue before the Campus Accountability and Safety Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate in July.
The significance of these events — all of which occurred in one calendar year — shouldn’t be underplayed. Real progress on changing cultural norms, or moving institutions to reform themselves, only happens when public attention is focused.
Admittedly, journalists are often guilty of sniffing around for the perfect victim, the person whose story is too awful or too sensational for the public to look away.
But at some point, other evidence piles up. And the need for the perfect victim recedes.