Indignant

Friday, February 11, 2011

Question

I was watching a television show where a woman character was raped. She refused to report it. Do you think that this sends a message to real rape victims that they should be silent? If you are attacked, don't you have a moral obligation to report it and prosecute the rapist so that he won't continue to victimize other women?

Answer

I have no idea how influential television programs are on the audience's opinions or behavior. But I do know that the plot had at least some degree of accuracy. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) states that as many as 60% of rapes go unreported.

In an ideal world, it would be easy to push for the reporting and prosecution of all violent crimes. But we aren't there yet. Many rape victims are in a fairly fragile state after being attacked. About 73% of them will have been overpowered and hurt by somebody they know, according to the RAINN website at www.rainn.org/statistics. Sometimes they need to focus on healing themselves before they can think about helping somebody else.

The legal process is not easy on victims. Nobody likes the mere inconvenience of having to take time off from our regular lives to tell the story over and over again to the police and prosecuting attorneys, then get prepared for testimony, show up for the trial, and then keep it together while being cross-examined by the defense. Each time a victim has to tell her story, she is to some extent reliving the violence. The original traumatic event was hard enough, but so is the fear and humiliation that accompanies talking about it with cops, medical professionals, social workers, and lawyers who are strangers. Rape shakes up the victim's confidence. She often feels that she can no longer trust her ordinary life to be safe. Perhaps her ability to trust people she once loved has been destroyed as well. This makes a conversation about intimate things, with authority figures and strangers, an unbearably daunting prospect.

Thanks to the women's movement, the legal system has made it somewhat easier for victims to come forward. It used to be routine for defense attorneys to attack a victim's credibility by asking her how she was dressed before the assault, what she did to provoke it, how many men she has had sex with, what type of sex she had with lovers, etc. You have to remember that it wasn't that long ago that only virgins were seen as rape victims. Married women certainly couldn't be raped—their husbands had a right to expect sex as a “conjugal right.” Women who were sexually experienced were also off the list of pure and innocent victims who could expect a sympathetic hearing from a jury. This stems from times when rape was actually a crime against the man who owned the woman in question—either her father or her husband. Good women were not supposed to be in a situation where men had unauthorized access to them.

Today, a woman's sexual history is not supposed to come up during a rape trial, but that doesn't mean that she can't be degraded on the stand by insulting questions and innuendo. If there were no witnesses and there's no supporting forensic evidence such as semen that can be tested for DNA, the case boils down to “he said/she said,” and it's unlikely that a prosecutor will take the time to put such a case on his or her schedule.

Instead of making a blanket statement that all rape victims should talk to the police and demand that their attacker be prosecuted, I think we need to have a more complex response. The solution to rape should not be on the shoulders of women who have been hurt, nor should it even be laid at the door of the legal system. Hatred of women and the idea that they are property are outdated attitudes that nevertheless survive in the way young men and women are raised. We need much better public anti-violence education. At this time in history, it is important for women to be able to say no to men, and not just when the question of sex arises. Men need to be able to hear women saying no, and react without anger or bruised entitlement. It is especially important for adolescent males to be given ways to become men that do not depend on abusing girls or women.

I would also like to suggest that we need service centers for all victims of violent crimes. Even if you've “only” been mugged for your purse or wallet, you feel violated, and you may be physically hurt. Such people (both men and women) need medical care, peer and professional counseling, access to support groups, and help in reducing the long-term effects of trauma. If people know that a center like this automatically pressures rape victims to submit to a police interrogation, many will not access their services. Our first-level priority ought to be addressing rape and other violent crimes as a crisis in the victim's life. Giving him or her control over what happens after the crime has been committed is an important way to restore a sense of control over life in general.