To many, blaming victims of sexual violence for what happened to them seems like a cruel additional burden to place on people who have already suffered a great deal. Yet 75% of victims of sexual crimes experience victim blaming. Groups like RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, are dedicated to shifting public perceptions of sexual abuse crimes and the role that victims have in their outcomes. “The most important thing for survivors to know — and for loved ones to express — is that the survivor is not to blame for what happened. A supportive reaction can make all the difference,” says Scott Berkowitz, RAINN president and founder.
An American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds; however, two out of three crimes go unreported. According to RAINN, survivors tend to keep their experiences to themselves for a variety of reasons; the most frequently cited causes include fear of retaliation and not wanting the perpetrator to get in trouble. While society has cultivated a culture of shame surrounding sexual assault, advocates echo Berkowitz’s sentiment that victims are survivors who deserve to receive justice and support to move forward with their lives.
A critical pathway to changing ideas and attitudes about sexual violence is addressing its portrayal in entertainment media. RAINN has taken an active role in helping advise and reshape how media portrays sexual abuse crimes and victims’ experiences. “Most people learn about the criminal justice process regarding sexual assault through what they see in film and on TV,” says Berkowitz. Because of this, the RAINN president sees an opportunity to collaborate with television programs and filmmakers to develop content that meets the needs of the storyline and the studio while also accurately portraying circumstances that can inform public opinion.
RAINN’s Scott Berkowitz: ‘I’m Really Hopeful’
In one example cited by Berkowitz, RAINN worked closely with the production team for the film Miranda’s Victim, which tells the origin story behind the establishment of Miranda rights and the woman whose rape and testimony are forever interconnected to the now standard legal invocation. . “The producer first contacted RAINN prior to filming. The filmmakers did a terrific job focusing on survivor’s experience rather than sensationalizing the criminal act,” Berkowitz explains.
While the content can be painful or triggering for some viewers, he remains optimistic about the content’s impact. “I’m really hopeful that Miranda’s Victim will get a wide audience because it shines a light on how a critical legal right was born out of a horrifying crime. The whole cast is phenomenal. Abigail Breslin [who plays Patricia Weir, who was raped by Ernesto Miranda] does an amazing job portraying the journey of survivor of rape, especially in 1963 when the idea of a ‘trauma-informed’ response was decades away. . I think people watching Breslin’s performance will come away with a harrowing understanding of what Trish went through in real life.”
As producers look to tackle programming that includes a dialogue or example of sexual assault, RAINN leadership has also seen a positive change in the way content is approached. “We’ve seen a big change in recent years in writers and producers reaching out to RAINN before they complete the creative and film,” Berkowitz says. “More and more, we see that writers and producers are committed to getting it right,; to making sure that they’re accurately portraying the experience.” This can help viewers better understand real-world experiences even if they’ve been relatively fictionalized on the screen, paving the way for empathy and a change in how viewers perceive victims in real life..
RAINN doesn’t stop when it comes to providing resources for victims of sexual assault. In addition to advocating for media to properly handle sensitive topics related to sexual abuse crimes, the nonprofit organization works to provide victim services, public education, and public policy advocacy to make changes that can change not just attitudes, but outcomes for victims. RAINN also operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673) with 24/7 assistance available in both English and Spanish. “We encourage people to reach out for help. We want people to know it is not their fault and they are not alone. ” Scott Berkowitz states.