One of the hard things this country has been doing, and I am proud of this country for doing, is pulling up carpets on issues and exposing what’s underneath. One issue we are slowly exposing is rape culture, and we have much work to do.
I and every other woman I know has either had direct experience with sexual assault or knows multiple women who have experienced it. One would hope we’d come a long way since my experiences in the 1970’s, when my own mother told me not to report because what I would be put through by the police and the courts would not be worth it, and I would probably lose. At the time, it would have been totally acceptable for them to question my sexual history, but even the fact that I had none would not have saved me. My clothes, my attitude, whether I had fought (though I was young and naïve enough to not fully understand what was even happening, much less fight)—all of these would be questioned, and I would most likely not be believed.
With the decision not to report came a great deal of regret and years of feeling guilty. My abuser went on to be in a position to abuse other girls. I have borne the weight of that responsibility my whole life—the fact that I was between the ages of 12 and 15 at the time notwithstanding.
But we have further to go, and now a young woman who means my whole life to me is facing this, and like the women and girls of my generation, not feeling like she could report it. Like me, until recently she wasn’t able to call her assault what it was, because even we women are taught to question ourselves. Now, there are acknowledgeably gray areas that can occur in sexual situations. I understand that. Given the mixed messages society gives both men and women about what constitutes consent, I asked her whether she thought her attacker could identify what he had done as rape, and she said no. Then I discovered all the details; I can tell you without the slightest doubt that she was assaulted by a predator who knew exactly what he was doing. He manipulated his way into her home, slapped her, and ignored her struggles, yet she could not bring herself to “accuse” him. In 2016, young women still believe they have somehow misunderstood when rapists willfully violate them.
Like my generation 40 years ago, she faces a legal system that does not automatically believe a woman who reports a rape. “Are you sure?” No one asks a mugging victim whether he is sure he didn’t voluntarily give up his wallet. No one finds out he gave money to another person—in a store, on the street, wherever—and then suggests that it was understandable that the mugger thought it would be okay to take this person’s money.
And you know, not all thefts are violent. Faced with a mugger who is clearly bigger and stronger and very demanding and intimidating, more than one person has handed over a wallet or purse without further threat or protest. No one says that crime can’t be prosecuted or even investigated. When someone is bilked of money, defrauded by a master manipulator, they often have legal recourse. No one tells them that, because they were conned by an expert before their money was taken, the conman wasn’t a criminal. Charles Ponzi went to jail. No one tells those victims they have no right to report the fraud. But we tell women who are conned into letting predators into the safety of their homes that what happened to them wasn’t really rape.
Remember, prosecution is not conviction. I’m not saying every man accused of rape must be punished. In America, we have a presumption of innocence, and that is important, but this does not require an immediate presumption that the accuser is lying or delusional, either. It means both are treated by their own side as if they are telling the truth, and the final determination is made through investigation and, when possible, in court. I have no doubt that people have been accused of stealing things when they were, in fact, willingly given the items in question, or who never had possession of the items at all. But how often is the victim of a mugging unsure he was even mugged because society tells him it’s ambiguous? After all, the mugging victim engages in voluntary exchanges involving money. How can he be so sure he was mugged? How often do we tell that victim that he shouldn’t “ruin the thief’s life” by reporting him?
People get away with all kinds of crimes: murder, burglary, embezzlement, you name it, because no justice system is perfect, and great care must be taken to try not to convict innocents. It’s entirely possible that a woman may report a rape and be believed, and the case may still not even go to trial. Sometimes that’s because of a system that secretly still blames the victim, but sometimes it’s just a genuine lack of evidence, as may occur in any other crime where the perpetrator goes unpunished. That happens. I get it. But many rapists get away with it over and over because their victims don’t report them, and how can we protect people if there are rapists getting away with it all the time? The National Institute of Justice reports that of the “rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated against women and girls in the United States between 1992 and 2000, only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults were reported.” Men under-report even more because there is this idea that they cannot be raped. It is wrong, of course, but who tells them that before it happens? Almost no one, I suspect.
How can this still be? Granted, more rapes are reported now than when I was in my teens and twenties, but do you know how that happened, according to the National Institute of Justice? Not from victims reporting it themselves. The initial increase in reports came from third party reporters like witnesses and family members. Somehow they knew they would be believed without blame, whereas the victim, herself, did not. Victims must be empowered to report, and that means their word should be as trusted as the word of anyone else who reports any other crime.
For those of you who worry that people will cry rape willy-nilly, the solution is readily available: explicit consent. “Is this okay?” “Hey, do you wanna…?” Then going no further without “yes.” I have begun teaching this in ACE, during the portion of the class where we talk about teen issues. I explain to the kids that the law is not as full of bright lines as they would like to believe. This is why we have a trial system. I tell them that, while reporting rape is not a guarantee of prosecution or conviction, all nonconsensual sex has the potential to end up in a rape conviction. Explicit consent protects both partners—from the pain of feeling violated and from the charge of rape where no rape was intended. For those who think this puts a damper on the mood, ask people in the BDSM community, where explicit consent is an absolute requirement. They seem to navigate it pretty well. (No, I’m not advocating BDSM for all; I’m saying they seem to have some pretty wild sex and still get in some version of “Do you wanna…?”)
Yes, indeed, America still has work to do. May my grandchildren’s generation be a safer one.