The problem of rape still plagues the United States. Why? Because rape mainly affects women: 9 out of 10 reported rape victims in the United States are female. Under the leadership of a predominantly male government, rape receives little attention (the House is comprised of 362 men and 76 women; the Senate 17 women and 83 men). As an example of the general disinterest our government has in women’s welfare, the United States is one of the only countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (the other countries are Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga). Ratification would allow for legal implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Our government has made it clear that women’s rights are not its priority at this time. Until our leadership is made up of at least as many women as men, I’m not sure the rape epidemic will ever receive the attention it requires to significantly lower the number of rapes committed. Knowledge of the facts is a critical piece of the armor needed to fight the war against women. Ending the rape epidemic is only a possibility if we all speak up, loudly.
Like most women, I knew about the danger and prevalence of rape by the time I hit pubescence; and I vehemently clung to a feminist perspective at a young age because of that. For a girl, the risk of being raped is a constant threat. As females in America, we cannot drink too much at a party, we cannot walk alone on a sidewalk, we cannot go home with a new date, we cannot go to the park, we cannot park our car, we cannot sit in an empty café, we cannot sit on an empty train, etc. without fear of being raped. A reasonable sense of caution is not a bad thing, of course, but the number of rapes that actually happen would decrease if everyone understood that it is a major epidemic and responded accordingly. Unfortunately, rape is systematically made insignificant in our country.
Back in January 2011, as part of the exemption for H.R.3 No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) proposed that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” I challenge Smith to offer a suggestion as to what sort of rape he would be amenable to experiencing as an example of unforced rape (i.e., what is rape if not forced?). His suggestion of such a thing as unforced rape is alarming, but not entirely surprising considering the general attitude toward rape on the spectrum of crimes. Given his introduction of the term “forcible rape,” I wonder if Smith would call an unconscious woman a willing participant? You can expect, as a woman, that if you fall asleep at a frat party or the like, that at least one man will assume you’re game. Perhaps according to Smith, such a violation does not qualify as “forcible rape” because the victim isn’t fighting back. Fortunately, the legislation of that phrase received such a negative reaction from voters that it did not get included in the final version of the act. Nevertheless, the fact that our legislators utterly misunderstand the concept and the seriousness of rape is a threat to our safety as women.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s recorded data, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of sexual assault. In 1998, 17.7 million American women were the victims of attempted or completed rape. And these statistics include only those crimes reported. The actual number of victims is far higher as many don’t report, often because victims want to avoid seeing their rapist again (in court). In addition, reporting a rapist can cost a woman her life, which is a known problem for female military soldiers (just one example is Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, whose body was found burned in the back yard of the soldier whom she was preparing to testify against as her rapist). It is estimated that 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail, including those whose crimes were reported and those unreported.
Reporting rape can be highly discouraged, particularly in the military. For example, the Military Rape Crisis Center’s website describes to victims how painful reporting will be for them and suggests, first, that they consider “restrictive reporting” so that an official investigation is not triggered. Military victims of rape, should they choose to report, are required to pass the information to their commanding officer rather than to law enforcement. As you might guess, this creates an intimidation factor for many victims. Further, it becomes particularly difficult when in a combat situation, where some of your fellow soldiers may have died and everyone is under pressure to work as a unit to avoid casualties. According to an article written on military rape and reporting by the Huffington Post, “The Pentagon office that collects the data estimates that only 10 percent to 20 percent of sexual assaults among members of the active duty military are reported.” More disturbingly, the military strives to keep those that are reported within the confines of the military (i.e., away from outside law enforcement and media). Out of more than 2,000 reported rape cases, only 317 “were referred for courts-martial, or military trials. Another 247 were referred for nonjudicial punishment.” Congresswoman Jane Harmon, an advocate for military rape victims, asked an important question in 2009 that has yet to be answered: “Where is the outrage when a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire?”
Though reporting difficulties are a major problem in the landscape of rape culture, it is also true that reporting rape does not necessarily lead to justice. Many rapes are reported to law enforcement and the best possible tool to convict perpetrators is DNA testing. Indeed, when rape victims immediately report to hospitals, evidence of the perpetrator’s DNA can be collected to prove the rapist’s presence and sexual assault. The evidence is saved in a bag called a rape test kit and passed along to law enforcement at the victim’s request. Thus now, more than ever, it is easy to identify rapists. Yet, the step required to identify them is typically not taken: surprisingly, the rape kits are often never tested. For example, in the State of Illinois, 80% of the existing rape test kits remain untested and in California, an estimated 12,000 are backlogged with no foreseeable testing planned. The numbers are similar in other states across the country. At one time, this backlog could have been blamed solely on a lack of resources (e.g., funding, staff). In 2004, however, after Congress created a grant program named after a rape victim (Debbie Smith) whose rape it took seven years to solve due to this backlog, the program was expanded to cover DNA backlogs for other crimes and rape kit testing became a low priority again. I initially thought, when I heard these statistics, that perhaps the kits are not tested in cases where victims don’t press further charges. But Sarah Tofte, director of advocacy and strategic partnerships at the Joyful Heart Foundation, who conducted the investigation and wrote the report on these backlogs, found otherwise. One victim Tofte spoke with called the police regularly for more than a decade to ask about progress on finding the man who had raped her, only to learn finally that her rape test kit was one that had been shipped to a storage facility, untested. In this way, the opportunity to prevent further rapes and violence against women is lost daily.
As if these facts aren’t enough to demonstrate the lack of serious attention rape crimes are given in our country, the world of entertainment provides a harsh example: rape can be a topic of humor. Recently, there was a slew of commentary on comedian Daniel Tosh’s reaction to a female audience member at a comedy club who spoke out against his assertion that rape is funny. He responded immediately with a statement about how funny it would be if she were gang raped there in the club, at which the rest of the audience members laughed. While Tosh may have been speaking in a tone of misguided irony, such declarations are dangerous in a society where rape victims are ignored and mistreated as a norm. Maybe Tosh assumed that everyone in his audience understood the detriments of rape, but when most rape victims are already afraid to report their victimization, his comments are an added threat to rape victims everywhere. Tosh’s flippant remark only served to illustrate the trivial perception of rape in our society. Who knows the effect such a comment might have on an audience member who has raped and never been caught, or on a woman still suffering from the trauma of rape.
After decades of university-condoned indifference to campus sex crimes, at universities across the country, the problem is finally being addressed. That is, now that boys are being victimized. The Penn State case involving the rape of several young boys has finally spotlighted the pervasiveness of college institutions concealing rape incidents in order to avoid bad press. While I am thrilled that this problem came to light, for the sake of the victims, and thatSanduskyis being duly punished, I have to wonder, would anyone care this much if these rapes hadn’t impacted a prized sport, a beloved male leader, and several male victims?
It is difficult to conclude on a topic of this magnitude, because the examples of injustice for rape victims seem to be endless. But my intention here is to continue a dialogue that will hopefully one day play louder than the harmful dialogue of our legislators, comedians, military leaders, and anyone who takes the epidemic of rape lightly. If you are a victim of rape or want to further assist, there are resources. In addition to local rape crisis centers in your state, you can also find resources and volunteer opportunities at the foundations linked below. Clearly, we must fight hard, really hard, to make this country safer for women.
 Worden, Minky, ed. The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights
 Worden, Minky, ed. The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights
Tags: Abortion, Abuse, anti-women, CEDAW, Civil Rights, discrimination, DNA testing, domestic violence, epidemic, feminist, forcible rape, House, Iraq, Jane Harmon, legislation, military rape, Penn State, pentagon, pubescence, rape, rape kit, Senate, sexual assault, Tosh, UniteWomen.org, victims, violence against women, Violence Against Women Act, war on women, women's rights
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