LAST WEEK Time magazine reported on the indictment of 76-year-old nursery school owner Virginia McMartin for the sexual abuse of some 125 pre-schooners over the past ten years. Ten article, listed similar incidents across the country and noted. "It is only now beginning to dawn on many authorities that the sexual abuse of children has become a major social problem."
Time attributed the silence of McMartin's young victims to the terror and guilt they experienced, along with the naivete of parents, who the writers say assumed "that separation anxiety was the reason their children cried when dropped off at school."
And in this week's issue of Time Republican Senator Paula Hawkins of Florida was reported as having disclosed to an audience of 1,300 at a recent National Conference of Sexual Victimization of Children that she was molested by a neighbor at age five. Hawkins' mother brought the perpetrator to court, but he was let off because, according to Hawkins. "The judge decided that children had to be lying."
Similarly, a recent television program called. "Something About Amelia," portrayed a thirteen-year-old heroine who broke down before a counselor while describing how her father forced her to have sexual intercourse with him since age eleven. In a public-service-spirited denouncement, the counselor reassured her that she was not alone, and that this type of case was all too common.
Amelia's mother, however, refused at first to believe the horrendous accusation made against her respectable husband, and instead vented her wrath against her daughter.
The lid is slowly being pried off of "taboo" issues such as rape, incest, and child molestation, due to growing media coverage and increasingly alarming statistics on sex-related crimes: For example, according to Time, "in a survey of 930 women in San Francisco, 38 percent of the group said they had been sexually abused by age 18, and 28 percent by age 14. In a study of 521 Boston-area families, nearly 10 percent said their own children had been victims of sex abuse or attempted abuse."
This disbelief is even built into our judicial process. Recently, television viewers across the nation were given the opportunity to witness the ludicrous level of skepticism which greets a plaintiff in a rape case. The victim of the New Bedford gang rape had her "character" placed under glass and combed backwards and forwards day after day after day: meanwhile, no one, except a few lone voices, had the acuity to openly question the relevance of the woman's previous behavior to what transpired on the night of the attack. What does it matter what kind of person she was before the attack? What would it matter if she had never uttered an honest statement in her life, up until the time of the assualt?.
SOME FEMINISTS would describe the trial as a direct reflection of the double standard within our society. Whereas a male plaintiff remains relatively unimpugnable no matter how sordid his personal history, a woman who displays less than pristine behavior in one set of circumstances is assumed to automatically "invite" attack in all others.
The double standard is certainly one valid explanation for the level of public doubt which female victims of sex-related crimes must often endure. But there is another explanation which extends beyond feminism--to victims of both genders and of all ages--and involves a more general human tendency to pull wool over one's eyes. Most people simply do not want to face the disturbing fact that a women might be risking her well-being simply by walking into a bar: that some men and women sexually assualt their own children: that some septuagenarians sodomize toddlers: that, in short, there are many seemingly benign individuals who actually view their fellow humans as mere articles of usable and discernable furniture.
Perhaps the most tragic version of the "See no evil, hear no evil" syndrome is the self-applied one. People are not only adept at disbelieving others' horror stories: they are equally good at repressing memories of indignities and damage inflicted upon themselves, even when they are painfully cognizant of the injustice involved.
Since the legal system itself bends, over backwards to taint the credibility of the sexually abused--to a degree spared plaintiffs in non-sex-related crimes--it is no wonder that skepticism pervades out everyday attitudes towards this type of injured body and soul.
"Conspiracy" is not too strong a word to describe why people treat sex crimes with distaste or disbelief, but it is actually too narrow a term, because it implies something that is done to others only. We conspire against our own health and safety whenever we refuse to acknowledge and confront the monstrous depravity which is exercised on others. Our blindfolds do not protect us: they only leave us uninformed, unprepared, and defenseless once we ourselves become targets.