Psychology Applied to Life

December 30, 2009

No Pattern = No Guilt? A Modern Way to Blame the Victim

Most of you (or those of you who watch any ESPN at all) have seen the controversy surrounding Mike Leach, formerly of Texas Tech. Basically, Leach has been fired by the school amid allegations (albeit from an ESPN analyst Craig James’s son, wide receiver Adam James) of abuse and mistreatment. The James family claims that after the wide receiver was diagnosed with a concussion, Leach confined him to an electrical closet and an equipment room (on separate occasions). While I don’t know what I think about how Texas Tech handled anything, what the truth is about what really happened, or whether Adam James has a history of whining and acting entitled, as various commentators and news sources allege, some of the reaction from commentators – particularly Lou Holtz, someone I admit I do not particularly like or find reason to respect anymore (we might all dislike Rich Rodriguez, but you just can’t compare him to Hitler, no matter what) – are particularly outrageous.

Namely, Lou Holtz has claimed that because Mike Leach has coached at Tech for the past ten years and there is, so far, no evidence of a pattern of abusing and mistreating players, that we should all basically be very suspicious of the current accusations (note that I’ve tried to find a video of some of these moments from various halftime updates or in a column, but haven’t found anything helpful). Frankly, this is just outrageous and frustrating. Yes, we should retain a healthy amount of skepticism when evaluating the veracity of claims that have the potential to do so much harm to one’s reputation and career, but the idea that because no one else has formally spoken out against this man, we shouldn’t trust the first person brave enough to speak out is ludicrous and upsetting.

Statistics tell us that victims of crimes such as rape and sexual assault – something that makes the victim/survivor (I use these terms interchangeably simply because the literature and other discussions use both terms, rather than to imply any sort of passivity versus activism or any other connotation associated with the two nouns) feel humiliated – rarely report the event (LESS than 5% of college women who are sexually assaulted actually report the event, according to a study funded by the U.S. Justice department and cited here if you don’t want to download the pdf). The overwhelmingly negative consequences facing those women (and men) who report the event are a major cause – victims fear they will be blamed or no one will believe them, that the attacker will attempt to gain retribution against the victim who reported him or her, the sheer emotional exhaustion involved in recounting the story over and over again for medical and legal personnel are just a few of the associated costs of coming forward. When we think about those additional complications – that would happen again in addition to the assault already suffered. If you don’t believe me, here are just a few articles that discuss the negative consequences for those who report the crime:

  • An article appearing on this October recounted stories reported by the LA Times and NY Times about several women who faced severe costs after reporting domestic abuse – from eviction because of a crime being committed in the residence to suspicion about their own role in facilitating child abuse.
  • A November article covering CBS’s 5-month investigation found that thousands of rape kits aren’t even tested – something terrifying considering that

    Rape by the Numbers, from CBS News

    the actual collection of evidence for the rape kits seems to be quite traumatic. The article also points out that the arrest rate for rape is only 25%, compared to 79% for murder and 51% for aggravated assault.

  • – normally a favorite for hilarious stories about work conditions that make you feel better about your own cubicle/cardboard box situation – reported on the story of a UK employee who has filed sexual harassment, discrimination, and constructive dismissal years after the incidents began. The woman explains that those who have not experienced such events cannot understand how the survivor can wait so long to report the offenses, but that she really needed her job and she was scared that others wouldn’t believe her accusations.
  • The UK’s Guardian reported a 2007 study that found that victims of rape were often not believed and judged and followed up with a number of stories about the legal system’s failures in handling rape, including reports published by The Telegraph that victims are not believed when they are intoxicated or “from the wrong part of town.”

So what’s the connection between my outrage and frustration towards Lou Holtz, a seemingly loose cannon who shouldn’t really be allowed on live TV anymore, and continuing victimization of rape and sexual assault survivors? I might have first made the connection between rape victims and this situation because of a tongue-in-cheek sports blog called “With Leather” that I frequently read – despite the my belief that it occasionally steps over the line from funny to offensive – which you can check out here. But, namely, the silence of victims that enables the offender to continue to victimize others with the same unchecked behavior that seemingly could be reduced if victims weren’t so terrified to speak out against the offender. If the system made it easier for these women to get help and be protected, to survive and move on without fear of reprisal, who knows how many more incidents would be reported and perpetrators put away and prevented from continuing to victimize others?

But individuals like Lou Holtz not only tell victims that they might be mocked if they do find the courage to come forward, but that they may not be believed. The first survivor to speak out – the one that makes it easier and paves the way for other victims to tell their stories and help authorities find the evidence necessary to punish the offender – is specifically deterred from reporting any crime because there is no established pattern of abuse. This is cyclical – as more time passes, the likelihood that someone would have already reported the offender seems to increase and the victim becomes less and less likely to speak and out and more and more likely to believe that the offense was somehow self-created. Obviously there’s a bit of a jump from the belief that we should look suspiciously upon the first report of abuse or mistreatment made against an otherwise fairly well-liked person in power to discouraging rape and sexual assault victims from speaking out, but there are some parallels and some reasons to be concerned about statements made by Lou Holtz.


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