Monday, June 24, 2019

The Subject Was Rape: How Hollywood Tries to Make a Difference

In recent weeks, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, has been the talk of Hollywood. And why not?  This four-part documentary series funded by Netflix gives faces to the five young men of color who were wrongly convicted of taking part in the brutal rape of a female jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The case, which involved police coercing the accused into false confessions, is widely considered one of the great failures of the American judicial system. Members of the so-called Central Park Five served up to 15 years in prison for crimes they hadn’t committed. Clearly this was a travesty of justice. 

A new book by my colleague Christopher Johnston outlines another kind of travesty, this one involving victims of rape and sexual assault. In Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice, Chris uses all his journalistic skills to explore the ways our society has let down rape survivors. It’s still all too common for police officers and defense attorneys to treat rape victims with cold skepticism, implying that these women (through their dress and behavior) had encouraged the vile acts perpetrated on them, that they were somehow “asking for it.” Fortunately, a coalition of law officers, sociologists, district attorneys and others has made great strides in introducing new standards of care for rape victim and new strategies for putting their assailants away for good.

One key recent discovery has come from Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State who has done considerable research into what she calls “the neurobiology of trauma.” Campbell has clinical proof that for a person facing sexual assault, fight or flight are not the only possible responses. It’s also perfectly natural for the victim to freeze, totally incapable of resisting an assailant. That’s why a woman under duress may not fight back, and why her inability to summon up the details of the assault for investigating officers does not prove that she’s being untruthful.        

Chris’s book is filled with the profiles of men and women, mostly in Cleveland and Detroit, who’ve made great advances in helping rape victims. Many of them have been impelled by their own personal histories to come to the aid of others suffering from sexual trauma. Partly this involves learning to handle victims with kindness and respect, especially during the invasive procedure required in the preparation of sexual assault kits. What’s outrageous to learn is that these kits, which contain crucial DNA evidence capable of  putting a rapist behind bars, are in many jurisdictions ignored for decades. In Detroit, for instance, the current push to provide state-of-the-art services for rape victims began with the discovery, in 2009, that 11,341 kits were crammed into a warehouse, unprocessed.

Hollywood movies and television shows have done their share of rape-related stories. Often cheap sensationalism is involved (yes, I worked in the B-movie industry). But back in 1988 Roger Corman alumnus Jonathan Kaplan made The Accused, a film that takes seriously the plight of a woman who’s raped by some goons in a barroom. Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her gutsy performance as a rape survivor who fights back. Even more interesting to me is the fact that Mariska Hargitay, the longtime star of TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has been inspired to take on the plight of  survivors of sexual assault, as well as abused children. Her Joyful Heart Foundation, established in 2004, is an active part of a push to test all backlogged rape kits, nationwide. See for more info. 

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