I am not a good victim of sexual assault. My assailant was not a stranger: We were on a date. I let him into my apartment and he eventually assaulted me there. After he left, he texted me saying that he had a great time and hoped to see me again soon. If you asked him today, I bet he'd tell you he was a modest, sweet, upstanding guy who had never assaulted or raped anyone. He even identified as a feminist.
A good victim is one who did nothing to "ask for it." A good victim does not know her assailant, is not around him willingly, isn't sexually active, isn't dressed provocatively, and isn't under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She makes it clear that the assault is not consensual, immediately reports it to the authorities, and cooperates with the investigation. No one can find fault with a good victim, because the good victim did everything in her power, and more, to prevent the assault from happening. The fault, therefore, can only lie with the assailant.
I'm a bad victim for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is that I didn't even immediately process that what was happening to me was sexual assault: I turned numb, unable to think or react, and stayed that way for several days afterward. My sympathetic nervous system — the "fight-or-flight" response — chose the third, lesser-known option of "freezing." Most likely because of that, I think, my memory of the events before and after my assault is hazy, though I wasn't drunk at all. I don't remember exactly what we talked about at the restaurant beforehand, or what route we took to walk to my apartment, or what reason he gave for eventually leaving. I don't even remember the exact date on which it happened.
These blanks in my memory give others a reason to doubt my story — what if I was just making it all up for attention? — despite the fact that my memory of the assault itself is crystal clear. Because I didn't do everything right, because there is reason to doubt me, I am not a good victim.
In actuality, the "good victim" is a mythical archetype, simply a yardstick by which all other victims are measured. No one will ever be considered a good victim in our society, because there's always something one can find for which to fault the victim. Once there's anything at all to fault the victim for, she and her story lose all credibility and she becomes a bad victim.
This is what happened to Jackie, whose story of a brutal rape at the University of Virginia appeared in Rolling Stone. After it emerged that certain details of her account were incorrect, readers took this as a reason to disbelieve her story in its entirety. Jackie is clearly a bad victim because she might have been wrong about the fraternity her rapist was in, about where he worked part-time, and about the exact date she was raped. Because she lied, or was mistaken, or simply forgot about those details, the logic goes, it must mean that she wasn't really raped, either. Because Jackie is a bad victim, it must follow that her story is untrue.
Most disturbing is that Rolling Stone itself has disavowed Jackie as a source because of this. Will Dana, Rolling Stone's managing editor, wrote in a statement that "there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced." While Rolling Stone undoubtedly should not have published an article that had inconsistencies, the fact that Jackie got some details wrong is not reason for the rest of us to throw out her entire story. Victims of trauma often have trouble remembering the exact nature of their assault, including the date on which it occurred, for which my own story of sexual assault should serve as a case in point. This is the nature of trauma: It makes forgetting easy, because forgetting is exactly what a traumatized person wants to do. It's a coping mechanism.
Jackie is not a perfect victim, but no one is. No one can be, because it's an impossible standard to attain. Others have found justification to disbelieve Jackie's story, just as they could find reason to doubt mine or anyone else's. It's easier to dismiss victims of rape and sexual assault than it is to believe that these tragedies really happen. But take it from me that they do, far too often, and they are messy, unpleasant, disruptive affairs. Believe victims of rape and sexual assault when we come forward, even if we aren't perfect. Because I know what it's like to be a bad victim. So I believe Jackie and I believe her story. You should too.