FeminismGuest Posts

Guest Post: An Evidence-Based Approach to Rape as a Societal Ill

A guest post by Aurora Vesper:

Our culture has a problem with rape myths. They’re pervasive, they’re anti-feminist, they encourage victim-blaming, and, perhaps most importantly, they’re false. They are more akin to superstitions than they are anything else. What am I talking about? I’m talking about these ideas we have floating around in our cultural psyche about what rape is, what it looks like, who the victims are, and how to prevent it.  We’ve more than likely all heard at least some of them, and, we’ve almost undoubtedly seen them implicitly frame a discussion without our conscious awareness. And if you’ve been around feminist circles for any length of time, you know them and what harm they do. If you don’t, here’s a couple of many resources that cover’s the subject broadly.

As a quick primer, these are myths like “to prevent getting raped, don’t dress like a slut”. That one, in particular, inspired the SlutWalks of last year, when a police officer inserted it as advice in a lecture to students. But these also come in more subtle forms, like “hold your car keys between your knuckles so you can jab if someone tries to rape you!” This, at first, doesn’t seem as odious, but it’s not only a mediocre-at-best piece of self-defense advice. It frames rape in a way that misunderstands how the crime is usually executed (a stranger attacks out of nowhere), and like practically every other rape myth, puts the onus of prevention on women who might be raped, despite the fact that it then presents trite, practically useless tools for doing so– that often, like in the case of our first example, serve to perpetuate even more myths and misogyny.

As I was first reading and researching this subject– trying to understand how this crime effects society and what we can do about it– I would read thoughtful, useful critiques of these myths and the problems they create with how we, as a society, frame rape. But I would come to the end of an article with a sense of “what now?” It’s important to point out what we’re doing wrong, to completely destroy old paradigms sometimes, because it leaves a gaping hole for what to do right and for the truth to fill. And that last step begs to be taken.

I’m only taking on a very small part of it, of course, because I feel drawn to fill this space of conversation I don’t see filled very often. What can society actually do to tackle the problem of rape as it exists today and how can we get an understanding of the topic to replace the myths that we’ve been fed?  Many great feminists and researchers have covered this behind academic pay-walls and in publications the general public (myself included) wouldn’t know where to look for. So I hope here, to start a conversation in this arena, as another voice in the blogosphere, on a way of tackling this issue with the evidence-based information we have available concerning this problem. We need not only to debunk the myths, but to replace them with something actionable, that puts the onus where it belongs, like with other crimes: on the perpetrators.

So let us start with the crime itself, as we need to understand a problem before we can draw conclusions on how to fix it. For the purposes of this post I’m defining rape as a sexual act preformed without consent, even though precise legal definitions vary. It can happen to anyone of any gender, and be committed by any gender. It also manifests, most often, in Western culture in fairly specific ways, with a male perpetrator and a female victim. It’s usually perpetrated by someone the victim knows (77% of the time, in fact); it often involves alcohol or drugs, or the threat of force, or force without a weapon.

We don’t have the same tools for getting information on rape that we do on most other crimes: most of them are not reported, let alone prosecuted or convicted. Surprisingly, though, several studies show many rapists will self-report when the word ‘rape’ is not used. That gives us some information to work with. According to those studies, most rapists are repeat offenders with an average of 5.8 victims, and about 6% of those interviewed (male college students and young enlistee’s in the US Navy) admitted to rape. There’s a lot of reason to think that number is fairly accurate and provides valuable information (seriously, I recommend that link to everyone). The vast, vast majority of rapes (and other sorts of abuses are correlated with the same people, actually) are committed by a small sliver of the population that offend again and again and again.

Now that there’s some data on who commits rapes, the keys are to not produce the social circumstances that enable their behavior and/or shape their predilection to, and/or find a reliable way to get them off the streets. They are violent criminals, and psychologically have a lot of things in common with most violent criminals (I would guess they actually have most in common with serial killers, since most rapists are serial rapists, and the crime is clearly done for the sake of the experience and not a secondary benefit, unlike a mugging). They are not average men. It is not an accident that rapists set up the crime in a way that gives them a way out.

However, rape is far more normalized in our society than other crimes. The social reasons rape is enabled come down to ideas and practices that both validate rapists and discourage reporting. An interesting tidbit I’ve run across is the idea that rapists think rape is normal. Not just for them–but for all men; they genuinely believe rape is the normal behavior, and most men just hide it. Now, this apparently comes out in psychological studies of rapists, but I haven’t been able to find source material on that. If anyone has it, that would be interesting. This is a huge reason, among many, why casual social reinforcement of “rape is no big deal” sentiments matters. (This is usually worded as, and usually takes the form of “rape jokes”. I don’t think that wording is that great for two reasons: actual casual reinforcement of ‘rape is no big deal’ sentiments tends to only be disguised as jokes, but they’re usually not jokes at all. “Rape doesn’t exist. HAHAHA. That’s a JOKE” isn’t actually a joke, it’s just pretending be one, and most of the crap I’ve heard pretty much takes that form. On the other hand, you get cases like this. The idea that rapists think all men are rapists, and there behavior is normal, I’ve found anecdotal evidence of (forums where some men actually make that argument) but I cannot find the psychological studies referenced.

As for societal ways of addressing rape, we need to look at the evidence, break the myths, and address the perpatrators. We’ve briefly dealt with enabling behavior, and thankfully, I see that addressed a lot in the feminist blogosphere. But what about gestational circumstances for this behavior? Is that societal? Is it largely different from other violent crimes? These are questions we don’t have answers to, but I think they, partially, provide a way forward.

Now there’s the question of dealing with rapists criminally. This an incredibly sticky question, and one I’m not going to remotely pretend to know the answer to. We know that reporting is the lowest of any crime, and there are a lot of reasons for that–one is of course the social stigma, and that’s something that can only be countered with education and culture change. But there’s more to it: rape is often an incredibly hard crimes to prove. A lot of rapes are set up to look like they are consensual, and that is unfortunately, one word against another. Should we encourage reporting in cases with no proof, anyway? And then there are cases with evidence, that are an ordeal for the victim in the courts. Fortunately, rape shield laws prevent things like sexual history from coming into question, but the defense still must make it’s case and the trial itself can be a traumatic event that a lot of victims would like to avoid. And then there’s the issue of rehabilitation and rape having one of the highest recidivism rates of violent crime and how to fix that.

Not everyone is going to be able to answer these difficult questions—and as a society we may not have answers for quite a while–but it’s important that we know the questions to ask and the ways to direct conversation so we, and society moving forward, don’t get caught up in the ignorant myths that drive so much conversation today. We need, on a large scale, to adopt a new way of framing this crime. In the meantime, each of us can correct myths where we see them.

Aurora Vesper was raised on religious tracts pretending to be textbooks and her skepticism resulted naturally from the facepalm following the completely sincere assertion that evolution was just a theory in class. Thank Teapot for the saving sips of the Unholy Internet. She has an odd desire to learn absolutely everything: a quest in which some standard for distinguishing fact and fiction proves to be helpful. She has a passion for pondering of all sorts, good coffee, generally unpopular vegetables, and heretical smirks. She wishes to use some or all of these inclinations to make the world a better place.

Featured image credit: Anton Bielousov

Image credits: pweiskel08; pweiskel08

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  1. February 22, 2012 at 11:43 am —

    Do you have a source for the claim of high recidivism rates for rapists? Everything I’ve ever read shows sex offenders having far lower recidivism rates than other criminals.

  2. February 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm —

    Awesome post!

    There was also the study about ‘lads mags’ using language very similar to that of convicted rapists. http://jezebel.com/5866602/can-you-tell-the-difference-between-a-mens-magazine-and-a-rapist

  3. February 22, 2012 at 8:58 pm —

    @koblerulz: High recidivism rates is admittedly an oversimplification, upon fact-checking. It’s a complicated issue in and off itself and dealing with all it’s nuance is out of the scope of this particular post–but recidivism, as it’s own facet of the issue I did feel needed to be introduced. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of points from the Bureau of Justice Statistic’s report (http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsorp94.pdf)

    “Within 3 years of release, 2.5% of released rapists were rearrested for another rape, and 1.2% of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for a new homicide.

    Sex offenders were less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offense –– 43% of sex offenders versus 68% of non-sex offenders.

    Sex offenders were about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for another sex crime after their discharge from prison –– 5.3% of sex offenders versus 1.3% of non-sex offenders.”

    It goes on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_offender#Recidivism_rates

    I’ve been unable to find a direct comparison with a variety of other criminals as of now. But thanks for bringing this up– from what I can see ‘high’ or ‘low’ are both oversimplifications, because of how many different angles this can be approached from, some of them unique to sexual crimes.

    This source also suggests it has a high recidivism rate when the criminals simply undergo imprisonment, but not treatment, but are highly responsive to certain kinds of treatment: http://www.vnews.com/sexcrimes/recidivism.htm

    Something in my readings did give me the impression that recidivism was high, but I’m unable to find that source now. The recidivism side of the issue is by far what I’ve looked into the least, so I don’t feel terribly qualified to be talking about it, except to point to sources and bring it up.

  4. February 22, 2012 at 9:11 pm —

    Lauren, thank you! I love Jezebel. Maybe this puts me in the minority, but I actually didn’t have any trouble telling the lad mags from the rapists. Maybe that’s because the lad mag quotes were written in typical bouncy magazine style. Nonetheless, there’s a disturbing convergence of ideas.

    That’s not to say -consensual- sex can’t contain some or all of the elements the lad mags are talking about, but I have a problem with it being presented as The One Right View of Sex That All Women Secretly Want, and always from a male perspective.

    I know that’s not what you, or the link, were suggesting, but I don’t like to give the anti-feminists any excuse for misunderstanding and/or hatchet jobs.

  5. February 22, 2012 at 9:39 pm —

    koberulzs, worry not. My reply to you is long and filled with links, and therefore awaiting approval.

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