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The myth of the ‘perfect victim’ of sexual assault | COMMENTARY

Baltimore businessman Chuck Nabit, who pleaded guilty to transporting a woman across state lines for prostitution, stands in his closet in this 2011 photo taken as part of a feature story about luxurious dressing rooms.
Baltimore businessman Chuck Nabit, who pleaded guilty to transporting a woman across state lines for prostitution, stands in his closet in this 2011 photo taken as part of a feature story about luxurious dressing rooms. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

As the executive director of Baltimore’s rape crisis center, TurnAround Inc., and a former prosecutor, I see the same story play out time and again, centering on the myth of the perfect victim. To be a perfect victim of sexual assault, human trafficking or intimate partner violence, you cannot also struggle with addiction, poverty or mental illness. To be a perfect victim, you cannot accept a drink, engage in commercial sex or walk alone at night. You cannot wear tight clothes or have a criminal record. You cannot be human.

The perfect victim is a caricature of real life perpetuated by film and television portrayals of young white girls from upper middle-class neighborhoods being kidnapped and victimized by strangers at random. This distorted vision of reality allows us to question the history and decision-making of any victim who does not conform to those images, while in the same breath forgiving the heinous acts of violence of the abuser.

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This mythology we have created is glaringly apparent in the recent case of Charles “Chuck” Nabit, former owner of Mountain Manor Treatment Center, a recovery center in Baltimore. Mr. Nabit pleaded guilty to transporting a woman across state lines for prostitution and admitted to regularly paying for commercial sex with multiple women, identified as victims 1 through 7, by the U.S. Department of Justice. Authorities say he coordinated with Deangelo Johnson, who is charged with crimes related to alleged trafficking. Several women reported that Mr. Nabit filmed sexual acts without their consent — another disgusting act of dehumanization and degradation.

Mr. Nabit’s attorney further perpetuated the dehumanization of the victims in this case, by highlighting their struggles with substance use. “It is unfortunate that the prostitutes with whom my client met had existing drug habits — like the overwhelming majority of people who engage in prostitution,” the attorney told The Sun.

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Mr. Nabit preyed on that vulnerability and supplied some of the women with drugs, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. And now, through his lawyer, he is attempting to use their addictions to attack their credibility.

We know that survivors of violence often use drugs to cope with past trauma, yet we continue to normalize abuse against those who use drugs. We are horrified when we hear the story of sexual violence, intimate partner violence or human trafficking — but when faced with the aftermath, we ostracize, marginalize and create an environment ripe for further abuse.

“Rather than use his resources to assist these victims, Mr. Nabit paid thousands of dollars to engage them in commercial sex acts,” Acting Maryland U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner said in a statement.

At TurnAround, we serve anyone impacted by sexual violence, intimate partner violence and human trafficking, regardless of their personal struggles. Addiction is not a license to take advantage of another person and disregard their humanity; it is not an excuse to commit serious criminal acts against that person. The myth of the perfect victim hurts all of us because the truth is no one can meet those standards. The system is designed to make victims doubt themselves, to gaslight them, to tell them: “if you had only not accepted that ride, not taken those drugs, fought back more, then we could help you.”

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The Minnesota Supreme Court recently reversed a rape conviction because the victim was “voluntarily intoxicated” in other words, “if only you hadn’t accepted that drink, then we could help you.” At TurnAround, we reject victim blaming. The responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser. We challenge systems, and we challenge you, the reader, to join with us in rejecting these archaic, damaging notions of victimhood. Trust me, no one is spared from the myth of the perfect victim.

Amanda Rodriguez (arodriguez@turnaroundinc.org) is executive director of TurnAround Inc. Jean Henningsen, director of Strategic Initiatives at TurnAround, also contributed to this op-ed. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or abuse, intimate partner violence, stalking or human trafficking, TurnAround is available to support you 24/7. Please call our hotline 443-279-0379 or text 410-498-5956. We believe you, and we support you.

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