I'm going to give some prompts . . . I want you to form a mental picture of three things . . . the victim, the perp, and the situation.
Imagine I told you that I spent 4 hours this morning in the ER with a victim. What do you imagine for the victim? the perp? the situation that led to the rape?
Now, imagine I tell you that the victim was a 51 year old woman. Do your mental pictures change any? What if I say she's 15? Or 9? Or 22? What if I say that the accused perp were 15? or 22? or 51? Or 9?
What if I told you that this woman was hispanic? Any changes? What if I told you she were middle eastern? Anything change? What if I told you the perp were white? Not white? Foreign?
What if I told you that I saw a woman in the ER who was disabled? Does your mental picture change? Would it change if I told you she were a veteran? Or homeless? Or had a history of arrests for prostitution? Or was a nun? What if I told you the perp were homeless? Or a known criminal? Or had a long history of mental illness? Or was a well respected community leader?
It is difficult to not let the mental picture change. I admit that when the pager goes off, and I speak to the ER charge nurse . . . some descriptions immediately bring more or less flattering mental pictures. For example, when I hear it's a college student, I have to force myself to not assume the student was intoxicated. Or, if I hear that it is an elderly woman . . . I have to tell myself to keep an open mind about the victim's ability to advocate for herself.
The problem is that for too many people, the worth of the victim and her/his experience is weighed by the labels we can attach to the victim. If the victim is a teen, many people will assume she is lying. If the victim has a history of substance abuse or prostitution or criminal activity . . . many folks will just dismiss the victim's experience all together.
We need to keep in mind that rape isn't JUST a gender issue. It encompasses how we feel about people who are different from us. Race, class, ethnicity, abilities, age, etc all play a part in how our society regards and reacts to victims.
We need to remember that the label "victim" is all we need to be compassionate in our response.