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Friday, May 01, 2009

Rape: No time for indifference

I'll come right to the point: I want to know why rape isn't taken more seriously.

I heard a snip of news on my local NPR radio station this morning that incidences of sexual assault and domestic violence have taken a sharp increase in the first quarter of 2009, as compared to this time last year.

And yet, the numbers for those utilizing shelters for battered women and services for victims of rape have reportedly remained flat or slightly decreased.

The NPR journalist quoted one Very Important Public Official who wondered aloud if there might be a connection between the present economic recession and the increase of sexual and physical violence toward women.

He may wonder. I have no doubt.

He also wondered aloud why more women aren't reporting or seeking help.

I think I know why.

Approximately nine years ago, The National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsored the National Violence Against Women (NVAW) Survey. The survey consisted of telephone interviews with eight thousand women and eight thousand men in the United States regarding their experiences with various forms of violence.

In this study rape was defined as
"an event that occurs without the victim's consent and involves the use of threat or force to penetrate the victim's vagina or anus by penis, tongue, fingers, or object, or the victim's mouth by penis. The definition includes both attempted and completed rape" (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000, p. 5).

The researchers found that 7.7 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men over age eighteen had experienced such an event (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000).

Statistics reported by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)include these gruesome facts:

1 out of every 6 American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape).

17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.

9 of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003.

While about 80% of all victims are white, minorities are somewhat more likely to be attacked.

Rape is also a common form of war violence. There is evidence that rape rates are often drastically high in war-torn nations. For example, mass rape in war has been documented in Liberia, Uganda, Peru, Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia.

A few days ago, NY Times ran a piece by journalist Nicholas D. Kristof entitled, "Is Rape Serious?" He writes:

When a woman reports a rape, her body is a crime scene. She is typically asked to undress over a large sheet of white paper to collect hairs or fibers, and then her body is examined with an ultraviolet light, photographed and thoroughly swabbed for the rapist’s DNA.

It’s a grueling and invasive process that can last four to six hours and produces a “rape kit” — which, it turns out, often sits around for months or years, unopened and untested.

Stunningly often, the rape kit isn’t tested at all because it’s not deemed a priority. If it is tested, this happens at such a lackadaisical pace that it may be a year or more before there are results (if expedited, results are technically possible in a week).

So while we have breakthrough DNA technologies to find culprits and exculpate innocent suspects, we aren’t using them properly — and those who work in this field believe the reason is an underlying doubt about the seriousness of some rape cases. In short, this isn’t justice; it’s indifference.

Kristof goes on to repeat a 2008 story reported by one of his colleagues at The Times, of a 43-year old legal secretary who was repeatedly raped n her LA home as her son slept in another room. The attacker forced the woman to clean herself in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

The detective on the case thought that this meant that the perpetrator was - or was potentially - a serial rapist who would strike again, so he rushed the rape kit to the crime lab but was told to expect a delay of more than one year.

So the detective personally drove the kit 350 miles to deliver it to the state lab in Sacramento where he was told the backlog there resulted in a four-month delay. However, the detective's hunch was right - the kit produced a match in a database of the DNA of previous offenders.

The only problem is that in the four months while the rape kit sat on a shelf, the suspect had already struck twice more. Police said he broke into the homes of a pregnant woman and a 17-year-old girl, sexually assaulting each of them.

Here's the piece that took my breath away:

“The criminal justice system is still ill equipped to deal with rape and not that good at moving rape cases forward,” notes Sarah Tofte, who just wrote a devastating report for Human Rights Watch about the rape-kit backlog. The report found that in Los Angeles County, there were at last count 12,669 rape kits sitting in police storage facilities. More than 450 of these kits had sat around for more than 10 years, and in many cases, the statute of limitations had expired.

There are, of course, the arguments about what it is, exactly, that constitutes sexual assault or rape. The complication seems to stem from the fact that approximately 73% of all rape victims know their assailants.

That same study revealed that, in cases of juvenile sexual assault, 93% of the victims know their attacker.

So, it comes as no real surprise to learn that rape cases are often seen by law enforcement officials as murky, ambiguous and difficult to prosecute, particularly when they involve (as they often do) alcohol or acquaintance rape.

As Kristof argues: "Some Americans used to argue that it was impossible to rape an unwilling woman. Few people say that today, or say publicly that a woman “asked for it” if she wore a short skirt. But the refusal to test rape kits seems a throwback to the same antediluvian skepticism about rape as a traumatic crime."

There are, of course, the arguments about expense - each kit can cost up to $1,500 to test. I suppose we can expect to see the anxiety which produces the mentality of scarcity that always accompanies times of recession and depression to create further excuses for the failure to test rape kits.

Here's the thing: Rape is a crime. It is motivated by the need to control, humiliate, and harm. It is not motivated by sexual desire. Rapists use sex as a weapon to dominate others.

This fact has a direct bearing on the effect of these fragile economic times. Women and especially women with children, are - and have been, historically - the vulnerable targets of the greatest adverse affects of poverty.

Women who live in poverty, for whom there exists no social safety net, are finding themselves plunged even deeper into the oppressive and violent cycle of poverty. Their lack of economic power and resources also make them the most susceptible to sexual violence.

Indeed, the effects of rape contribute to the cycle of poverty:

According to a 2002 study done by the World Health Organization, Victims of sexual assault are:

3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

While we are all being whipped up into an hysterical frenzy about Swine Flu, the pandemic of violence and sexual assault and the rape of women and children - especially those who live in poverty or in War Zones - continues unabated.

There is no vaccination for the pandemic of Apathy and Indifference which flourish in times of economic recession.

The only proven effective course of treatment is increased awareness and education, along with reporting and prosecuting the perpetrators of this crime.

That can be done much more effectively if we involve ourselves in the effort to pressure local law enforcement officials to actually test the rape kits which are dutifully and lawfully taken in the emergency room at the time of the rape.

Bottom line: There is no excuse - none whatsoever - for the secondary, bureaucratic rape-by-indifference of a woman's body.

Not the definition of sexual assault.

Not difficulty of pursuing the perpetrators of sexual assault.

Not the cost of testing the findings of the rape kit.

Rape is a serious crime. Let's start treating it as seriously as we do any other crime.

And, let's redouble our efforts - especially in these difficult economic times - to spare no expense to protect ourselves from the infections of apathy and indifference.


8thdayplanner said...

Thank you for posting this.

Suzer said...

Thank you for this, Elizabeth. I haven't the words to describe how powerful your witness is regarding this issue.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You are most welcome. I only hope it helps.

Song in my Heart said...

Thank you.

VTcrone said...

The Spring edition of COLUMBIA (The Magazine of Columbia University) has an excerpt from Helen Benedict's new book, THE LONELY SOLDIER:THE PRIVATE WAR OF WOMEN SERVING IN IRAQ. A quote from the piece, "According to several recent surveys conducted by researchers at veterans centers, nearly a third of female troops are raped by their comrades, while some three-quarters are sexually assaulted, and 90% are sexually harassed."
(And that's just Iraq, now it's on to Afghanistan.)
Benedict is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Her website is:

St Edwards Blog said...

Thank you so much for posting this - it is so comprehensive and powerful.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks VT Crone for the information. Thanks for your visit St. Edward's Blog. Please pass it along to anyone who may need it.

Marc said...

I placed a link to this article on my Facebook profile page in the hopes others will read through the good advice found here.

I honestly can't think of any crime that affects the victim more tragically - and for such a seemingly endless length of time - as rape and all those things connected to it, before and after.

Thanks for putting this up for others to benefit from, it has been a worthwhile few minutes going over your thoughts and reports.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Marc. If you search 'rape' on this site, you'll find lots of other articles.