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The importance of community response to sexual assault

This personal story shows how damaging unfair response can be to sexual assault victims.

[Editor's Note: It's National Week of Action for the It's On Us campaign to end sexual assault and raise awareness for what we can all do as bystanders. SB Nation is a proud partner of the campaign, and will be hosting content throughout the week in support of the issue. Visit ItsOnUs.org and take the pledge with us.

Dani Bostick, a contributor to our Steelers blog, Behind the Steel Curtain, is sharing her personal story. As you can see, how we react to sexual assault as a community can have damaging effects on victims.]

It is horrible being a victim of sexual assault, and it is horrible dealing with the aftermath. I know firsthand. I am a victim.

My swim coach was my perpetrator. Like many perpetrators in the community and on college campuses, part of his cover story was being an upstanding citizen. Even at his sentencing, even after he plead guilty, his supporters called him a "man of impeccable character." Many referred to his disgusting crimes as a "mistake." They didn't refer to his crimes as something he did, but something that happened, a phrase that seemed to absolve him of responsibility for what he chose to do.

Your reaction to alleged perpetrators and victims, even in casual conversation, can either help make your community a safer, more comfortable place for victims, or it can perpetuate rape culture. When victims feel shamed, judged and ridiculed while their perpetrators are extolled as virtuous, it makes the reporting process a nightmare. That is the reason rape is one of the most underreported crimes. Since many perpetrators are repeat offenders, creating a culture in which victims feel supported and comfortable reporting can help prevent future crimes.

I don't remember much about the crimes, but I do remember how people reacted to news that their beloved, trusted coach was also a sexual predator, accused of disgusting crimes by an anonymous victim. My coach had confessed to the crimes during a phone sting, so there was strong evidence of his guilt, enough to arrest him. In the press, however, there was no mention of this evidence, as is often the case.

With news reports of an anonymous victim and a named perpetrator with a stellar reputation, it was clear who the bad guy was. Me. Reactions from acquaintances and strangers alike exacerbated my feelings of shame, guilt and self-loathing.

This comment was representative of the onslaught of reactions on social media and in personal interactions -- since I was anonymous, most of my acquaintances did not know I was the victim and felt free to express sentiments such as this:

"This man is now guilty until proven innocent. I played baseball as a youth and teen, I also swam on our swim team. Ever see a coach smack another's guys bottom in baseball? OMG, I was molested I should sue!! She should be ashamed of herself."

Others, assuming they knew my identity, slandered my reputation, spreading rumors that I was mentally unstable and looking for a scapegoat for my problems.

Unfortunately, these types of reactions are common. When news surfaces of an allegation of rape, is it easier to believe that such horrific crimes happen in our communities? Or, is it easier to create a safer, more palatable reality and believe that there is a liar in our midst? If the alleged victims are telling the truth -- which they often are, false reporting is rare -- it means our neighbors, best friends, coaches, mentors, sports heroes, siblings and roommates are capable of the unthinkable. It means people we trust, or, rather people who have groomed us to trust them, are criminals.

What does this mean for you? The good news is, as a friend, roommate, athlete, acquaintance or consumer of news, you are not responsible for investigating the crime or determining the truth. Your role is not to judge, sleuth or evaluate the veracity of facts in the case. If you do have information about the case, that is an even bigger reason to be careful about your reaction.

Most people aren't rapists, and most people aren't in a position to stop a crime in progress. You can, however, be aware of how you respond to accounts of sexual assault. If you support an alleged perpetrator, there is a venue for that support. My perpetrator had a slew of supporters present at his sentencing. That was his right.

If you hear about an allegation either in the media or in person, think before you react. It took a lot of courage for the alleged victim to report the crime to law enforcement, or simply share his or her concerns with a friend. Your reaction can contribute to a culture in which victims are silenced and do not pursue justice for crimes. Or, you can start making your community a safer, more comfortable place for victims, one in which they do not have to worry about having their reputations maligned while their perpetrators are heralded as model citizens.

It is not up to you to decide whether a crime happened. It is up to you, however, to contribute to an environment where alleged victims feel comfortable pursuing justice without being victimized a second time.

My perpetrator is in jail now, but during the window of time that I was simply Victim A, I was treated like a criminal. Feeling attacked by society as a whole was, at times, as bad as knowing I was attacked by one person.

Bystander intervention doesn't need to involve heroics. Ask yourself: Do my words and actions help my community be a safe place for victims to report their crimes and deal with the aftermath of their assault? Or, am I contributing to a culture that imprisons victims in silence and shame?

It's on us.