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How Victim-Blaming Ends Up Hurting Women Who Aren’t Actually Victims

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"How Victim-Blaming Ends Up Hurting Women Who Aren’t Actually Victims"

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CREDIT: Joseph Kaczmarek/AP Images

This week, a Ohio University sophomore is being harassed by strangers online who are accusing her of lying about being raped. She’s become the subject of their attention because they assume she’s the woman who was allegedly assaulted on the street last week — a public sexual encounter that’s been making headlines because bystanders snapped photos of it and posted them online. But she isn’t.

According to Ohio University’s student newspaper, a sophomore named Rachel Cassidy has been misidentified as the woman in those photos and videos. Cassidy became the subject of persistent online attacks, including a message board that published links to her personal social media accounts in a post entitled “Rachel Cassidy, false rape accuser, liar.”

“I have no idea why I was targeted,” Cassidy told the student newspaper. “I was probably asleep in my bed when this happened, and now I’m being blamed for it.” She says she was at her sorority house at the time the incident occurred, and Ohio University police have confirmed that she isn’t the woman who came forward to say that the widely-publicized sexual encounter was non-consensual.

Nonetheless, the sophomore has now been forced to deactivate her social media accounts. She says she’s been afraid to leave her house, so she asked the university to excuse her from classes on Thursday and Friday. Her parents have also asked to remove her contact information from the campus directory.

Since Ohio University is currently investigating the alleged sexual assault and will not release the name of the victim, Cassidy and her family are working to clear her name even though the real women who appears in the viral photos is still unidentified. “It’s critically important for people to know that the attacks generated against my daughter are simply because she has long curly hair and may look a little bit like the victim,” Cassidy’s father noted. He called the online harassment a “horrific attack on her reputation” and said some of the comments related to her are “unimaginable.”

Cassidy is ultimately a casualty of rape culture, the brunt of vicious attacks that are frequently leveled against women who are suspected to be lying about their own experiences. Even if these attacks were directed at the individual who was actually involved, they’re yet another example of the victim-blaming attitudes that survivors of sexual assault often encounter once they come forward about the crime that was perpetrated against them. And just as the evidence in the Ohio University case was passed around on social media, rape survivors are often bullied and shamed through online platforms. Tragically, that type of online harassment has led several young victims to take their own lives.

This dynamic has most recently been evident in the Maryville rape case, where a young teenager and her family were driven out of their small Missouri town after attempting to file rape charges against a football player. But it happens everywhere. When women allege that they have been sexually assaulted, everyone from police departments to university officials to their neighbors often tells them they’re mistaken, and assumes they’re simply “crying rape” after waking up the next morning and regretting a sexual encounter. Instead of automatically believing women, society’s knee-jerk reaction is to assume they’re lying, and attempting to trap innocent men in those lies.

That’s the source of the harassment against the alleged Ohio University victim (or, for now, the woman who’s been misidentified as that victim). The message board attacking Cassidy claims the woman who was involved in the public sexual encounter “changed her story” to avoid expulsion. “Now the guy is facing criminal charges because this evil woman decided to make a false rape accusation against him,” the site proclaims, and links to a video of the alleged assailant performing oral sex on the woman — an act that she later said was non-consensual. “This is what a woman who is getting ‘raped’ looks like? Nope, looks like she is fully enjoying this VOLUNTARY oral sex she is receiving.”

This case doesn’t fit the definition of what many people assume is rape, since it doesn’t involve obvious physical violence. The alleged victim was not struggling. One of the students who took photos of the incident said he only recorded it because he assumed it was consensual.

But that student also noted that both participants were “very, very drunk.” And no matter how “voluntary” the encounter may have appeared to be, that fits Ohio University’s official definition of assault. The university’s policy states that an individual is unable to consent if they are “asleep or otherwise mentally or physically incapacitated, whether due to alcohol, drugs or some other condition.”

And regardless of a larger conversation about what constitutes consent and sexual assault, the fact of the matter is that the people who weren’t involved in the incident aren’t in a position to speculate about it. The woman reported it to the police, a difficult step that very few victims of sexual assault feel comfortable taking. Bystanders don’t know the details of her experience. But thanks to the pervasiveness of rape culture, their first instinct is to spread it online anyway — and rush to attack women for being at fault, even women who weren’t involved.

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