In many areas of South Asia and the Middle East, publicly identified rape victims are saddled with a burden of shame and rejection that sometimes prompts even their own families to shun them. We Westerners find that culture of misdirected degradation vile, backward and misogynistic, and with good reason.
But recent events, most notably the suicide of Northern California teen Audrie Pott, reveal an uncomfortable truth: All too often we are no better.
As Audrie's parents explained in a news conference this week, Audrie suffered mightily following an alleged sexual attack last fall in which she was first assaulted while unconscious and then humiliated by photos of the incident that were posted on social media. Her assailants had scribbled graffiti on her partially naked body, and about 10 people saw the photos online. Many more heard about it.
By speaking out, Audrie's courageous parents shone an unpleasant light on a despicable but not uncommon behavior, especially among teens: blaming or taunting victims of sexual assault.
"I'm in hell," Audrie, 15, wrote on Facebook last September. "The whole school is talking about it. ... My life is ruined. I can't do anything to fix it."
We all sometimes make bad decisions that make us vulnerable to crime, such as leaving the keys in the car's ignition or forgetting to lock the front door on the way to work, but those lapses don't open us up to ridicule in the same way that being victimized by sexual assault sometimes can.
Audrie's tragedy has drawn parallels to recent high-profile cases in Nova Scotia and Steubenville, Ohio, in which the young victims of sexual assault (or statutory rape) were harassed by others, but it is unique in two tragic respects: the three suspects, all 16, were longtime schoolmates of Audrie's; and the victim could find only one satisfactory escape: suicide.
What can we learn from this? Just this: Parents must talk to their sons and daughters about sexual assault, alcohol, social media and respect -- for others and especially themselves.