The Hyperbole of Victimhood Doesn’t Help

Among the press releases received in the old SJ mailbag yesterday was one from Human Rights Watch announcing a 196-page report, “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia,”  This is no trivial matter, though I lacked sufficient interest to read a report of that length.

But because of my concern for the victims of sexual assault, I read the email, itself a rather lengthy bit of writing.  This paragraph stuck out.

“Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in the US, largely because many victims fear that their cases will not be taken seriously and that police will not believe them,” said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in the US Program at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Unfortunately, for some victims in DC who bravely came forward and reported their assaults, those fears were realized.”

It compelled me stop and wonder, if a crime is underreported, then how would you know its frequency? By definition, underreported means you don’t know.  And “most” underreported?  Most underreported “violent” crime?  From what I understand about sexual assault, its definition has grown a bit fuzzy these days.  Is it fair to describe sexual assault as a violent crime when violence is imputed by definition of lack of consent, whether before or after the act, rather than conduct?

The explanation for this underreporting, that “victims fear that their cases will not be taken seriously and that police will not believe them,” seems fair as far as it goes, but it strikes me as a bit facile and underinclusive. Aren’t there other reasons, like embarrassment? But if that happens, then it doesn’t quite comport with characterizing victims who come forward as “brave.” Why is it necessary to call a crime victim “brave”? Crime victims should come forward, both for their own sake as well as the sake of others, regardless of whether they’re brave or cowards.

My suspicion is that the imputation of bravery has to do with the claim that their allegations of sexual assault are questioned by the police.  Shouldn’t they be? How else to distinguish allegations that are false from those that are true? Didn’t we just go through an incredibly embarrassing infographic about this? 

The email goes on to state:

Some sexual assault survivors described to Human Rights Watch callous treatment by police officers, who, they said, openly questioned their credibility and minimized the severity of their experiences.

The phrase “cancer survivors” is commonly used to describe people who overcame cancer. The reason for calling them “survivors” is that cancer kills people. Those not killed are fairly said to have survived. The same cannot be said for people who suffered sexual assaults. They may well be victims, but they are not survivors. This relates direction to the complaint of “callous treatment” by police who “openly questions their credibility and minimized the severity of their experiences.”

Police should openly question the credibility of every person who seeks to initiate a criminal investigation and prosecution. That’s how wrongful arrests and prosecutions are prevented. That’s how innocent people are not imprisoned.  Does Human Rights Watch contend that innocent people should be prosecuted and imprisoned? It seems rather contrary to their cause.

As for the severity of their experiences, the use of the word “survivor” belies that complaint. No doubt there are horrible sexual assaults, but similarly there is no doubt that there are perceived sexual assaults that aren’t as severe as others. This may fly in the face of orthodoxy, but just as there is grand theft and petty theft, some are worse than others. They are not all the same, and it hardly behooves the victims to diminish a violent rape from seemingly consensual sex with a person whose capacity to consent is diminished by drunkenness.  While the latter may well argue that I am wrong to trivialize his experience, the former, lying in a hospital bed, may well be unimpressed.

By no means do I lack either empathy or concern with anyone who has suffered a sexual assault. Quite the contrary, as I am outraged and disgusted by sex crimes.  But my visceral reaction doesn’t mean that I turn suddenly blind to the problems of false accusations or dubious definitions or exaggerations.  Concern for one side doesn’t require someone to ignore the other.

Human Rights Watch does many good things, and is worthy of our interest and respect. But it doesn’t help to garner respect when it employs blind hype that suggests it has lost all reason, balance and concern for other issues worthy of its concern.  By all means, if the District of Columbia police are unduly callous toward sexual assault victims, it should be reported and challenged.

But let’s not forget that there are other interests involved as well, and when the descriptive language goes over the top as here, credibility is sacrificed.  There are many human rights at stake here. When fighting for one, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of others.

4 thoughts on “The Hyperbole of Victimhood Doesn’t Help

  1. Dennis Murphy

    Putting this all in perspective – more men than women are raped each year, if you count, as we should, prison rape.

  2. SHG

    I was cautious not to use the female pronoun in this post for just that reason, though I suspect some people won’t accept this premise.

  3. Onlooker


    Your error here is using that pesky critical thinking stuff. You should instead be using your emotions. You know, knee jerk-like. Get with the program.

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