The Duggar crisis has raised a number of questions about how we talk about sexual assault victims. The victims’ privacy is being used as an excuse to shut people up about the perpetrator, and the Duggar family is, of course, encouraging silence. Unfortunately, ‘shut up about sexual assault’ is never a good answer — it’s an excellent way to let past, current, and future perpetrators know they can carry out their assaults, and no one will speak up.
So, what should we be saying, and what should we not be saying, about victims of sexual violence?
1. DO NOT say that it’s in the past. Most sexual assault victims agree that it isn’t something that goes away. That type of violation isn’t a thing easily forgotten.
2. DO NOT identify the victims by name, unless you have their permission — and even then, proceed with caution. In this case, the victims were roughly identified in the case information, and it was relevant to the crimes, because Josh Duggar attacked and violated people who were in a position to look up to him and depend on him. However, there are stories out there that have checked the ages and done the math, and specifically identify which girls were victimized. I won’t link to any of those here. There’s even one that purports to have worked out who the fifth victim was. This isn’t okay.
3. DO talk about the perpetrator. Rapists and sexual predators do not deserve the privacy their victims do. It has to be very clear that they cannot get away with victimizing others, and that society doesn’t accept their actions.
4. DO remember that victims are listening. Perhaps the victims in the current case, but unquestionably, victims of other predators are listening, and people who will be subject to sexual violence in the future are listening. When another girl is violated, you don’t want her thinking “If I tell, it will be embarrassing, and he won’t even get in trouble.” You want her to know that if she reports her attacker, people will be on her side.
5. DO remember that other potential or current predators are listening, too. Are you sending them the message that they can get away with it, and everyone will forgive and help them cover it up, or sending the message that we care about victims?
6. DO NOT victim-blame. Don’t speculate on whether she was wearing a too-short skirt or a too-flimsy nightie or encouraged him. Don’t express that she is no longer ‘pure’ or speculate on whether her current spouse knew she’d been ‘soiled.’
7. DO NOT make excuses. Oh, he was so young, he’s prayed about it, they’ve forgiven him, he’s a good boy. No. Nobody should get away with rape or sexual assault. Teenagers know that other people’s bodies are private. If they do not, something is wrong. If you rape people, you’re not ‘a good person.’ If you sexually assault people, no one is expected to agree that you are ‘really nice and sweet.’
8. DO invite victims to talk to you. Make it clear that if the victim, or any victim, needs support, you’re there. Be willing to drive a victim to the police station, hold a hand, open an ear.
9. DO NOT force the victim to face her attacker more than necessary. She may have to see him in court, but she shouldn’t have to share a dinner table with him, sit by him in church, or attend classes with him, if it can be avoided, and unless she is comfortable.
10. DO believe the victim. There are certainly a few cases where victims have lied, but in general, people don’t go out of their way to be perceived as victims of sexual assault. It’s not a pleasant role to fill. If someone confides in you, trust her.
11. DO NOT violate a victim’s confidence. If she tells you she doesn’t want to go to the police, it’s not your job to do it behind her back. If she doesn’t want her attacker confronted, don’t do it. Don’t share the details she told you.
12. DO encourage a victim to go to authorities herself. This protects future potential victims. Don’t force her.
13. DO help a minor victim talk to her parents. DO report abuse of a minor, especially if you are a mandated reporter and/or you recognize that the parents won’t report it.
14. DO NOT minimize the victim’s experience. It was as bad as it was, and unless you live inside her skin, you don’t know how she felt.
15. DO NOT minimize the perpetrator’s behavior. It wasn’t ‘just fondling,’ or ‘just a front hug’ or ‘just playing doctor.’ Rape is rape. Sexual assault is sexual assault. They are serious, invasive crimes, that follow a victim for life.
In short, don’t be part of the cover-up or part of the scandal. Be a part of the healing and a part of the helping. Don’t encourage rapists — encourage victims. The sexual assault victims in your life (if you know five women, you probably know a sexual assault victim) will appreciate it.