Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guest Post: 5 Reasons Why Rape Victims Struggle for Justice

Throughout history rape has been recognized as a crime, although criminal codes – and the very definition of rape – have varied from culture to culture and from one era to another.  Whether rape victims get justice has always depended upon where (and when) they lived.  In the modern-day United States we like to think we are relatively enlightened in this regard.  We have the advantage of heightened educational and legislative efforts over the past forty years, driven largely by the feminist and human rights movements. Groundbreaking books such as Susan Brownmiller’s classic 1975 work, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, explored the dynamics of rape.  Contrary to the subtitle, Brownmiller’s book tackled not just male-on-female rape, but also homosexual rape (particularly in prisons) and the sexual assault of children.  The net result of four decades of education is that attitudes and laws are more protective of the victims than they used to be, at least in the U.S. and many other First World countries.

In many parts of the world, however, it is a different story: attitudes, practices, and laws remain relatively unsympathetic to the victims.  Rape victims in India, and in countries in the Middle East and Africa are often victimized as much by archaic laws and traditions as they are by their assailants.  There are numerous other examples of injustice as well, and not necessarily just in Third World countries.  Gender and economic inequality inherent in some of these cultures almost guarantee that rape victims will not get justice.  This is an issue worthy of continued attention by international advocacy and activist groups.

But we in the U.S. have no room for complacency, for many rape victims still face an uphill battle in their pursuit of justice.  For several reasons, rape remains an egregiously underreported – and under-prosecuted – crime, even in the U.S.  Here are five reasons that many rape victims in the U.S. still struggle for justice.

1.     Even defining “rape” can still be a challenge.  At one time, rape was chiefly thought of as a male-on-female offense involving forcible vaginal penetration.  In the 1970s and 1980s, widespread legislation reform expanded the definition, defining rape in more gender-neutral terms and encompassing other acts besides forcible vaginal penetration, as well as various types of sexual abuse that don’t necessarily involve force at all.  But this didn’t necessarily make justice easier to pursue or obtain.  Even though rape and sexual assault are covered by the Federal Criminal Code (Title 18, Chapter 109A, Sections 2241-2233), laws vary from state to state, and antiquated laws remain on the books in some states.  Rape statutes in the U.S. still tend to require lack of consent or physical force or both – overlooking the fact that coercive manipulation can and does result in grievously inappropriate sexual contact that under more enlightened laws might be considered criminal.  This isn’t just a problem for public health officials who are trying to compile sexual assault statistics.  It can be a very real problem for prosecutors and victims as well.

2.     Victim blaming is still alive and well.  Historically defense attorneys, who would for all practical purposes put the alleged victim on trial, used the old “blame-the-victim” strategy.  Their reasoning was that if they could demonstrate that the victim’s appearance and/or behavior (even past behavior) was somehow responsible for the crime, it would make the perpetrator more sympathetic to a jury.  Although so-called rape shield laws have modified this practice in the courtroom, culturally we haven’t come such a long way, judging from the insensitive  – and this is putting it kindly – remarks made by some foot-in-mouth politicians and radio hosts.  The blame-the-victim attitude is alive and well, and it’s unrealistic to think that law enforcement and juries are completely uninfluenced by this attitude.

3.     Many victims blame themselves. As if it weren’t bad enough that others might “blame the victim,” many victims still tend to blame themselves.  Rape is a traumatic violation, whether it is forcible rape by a stranger, coercion or manipulation by someone in a position of power, or “date rape.”  Victims are often ashamed and embarrassed and hold themselves responsible, at least in part, for what happened to them.  Even if they have the courage to report the attack, many victims are so embarrassed or intimidated that they decline to press charges or refuse to give law enforcement enough information to result in an arrest, say nothing of a trial and conviction.

4.      Many rapists target victims who are easily intimidated and/or whose credibility can easily be questioned.  Though modern statutes may reflect the reality that not every case of sexual assault involves force and violence, it can still be difficult for prosecutors to persuade juries that seemingly consensual, or coerced but nonviolent, sex is actually an offense worth convicting.  Complicating the matter is the fact that many rapists target victims who won’t be likely to fight back.  They may target young, timid, mentally or emotionally challenged or otherwise vulnerable victims.  Or they will seek out victims whose credibility can easily be disputed or who can be made to appear unsympathetic to a jury.  Targeting such victims makes it less likely that the rapist will even be charged, much less tried and convicted. 

5.     False accusations do occur, and they cloud the picture more than we like to admit.  Every time there’s a news story about an athlete falsely accused of rape, it reinforces the perception that false accusations are a relatively commonplace occurrence.  And the ongoing controversy over “false memories,” only strengthens the perception among many that sexual abuse accusations should always be taken with a grain of salt.  Certainly false accusations occur, and most assuredly they can wreck the life of the accused.  This problem should never be taken lightly.  But the truth is that false rape accusations remain relatively rare.  Unfortunately, every time a dramatic story comes to the public attention there is a little bit of backlash, and arguably an increase in cynicism towards all who make rape accusations.  This can discourage real victims from coming forward.

The law, like civilization itself, is a work in progress, or so we like to think.  And although we’ve made a lot of progress in recent years, we still have a way to go before all victims of rape and sexual assault are able to get justice.

For more information: This 2000 report by the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, Medical University of South Carolina, provides some history of rape legislation in the U.S. 

Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post.  She is a writer from ArrestRecords.com and you can reach her at daphneholmes9@gmail.com.

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