The myths about sexual assault
Attackers often fall within family tree or ‘trusted’ circle
By REKHA BASU
February 18, 2007
At 10 years old, Iowan Johna Sullivan became one of the 80 percent of child sexual-assault victims in America who are attacked by someone they know and trust.
It happened within her home. Like most victims, she didn’t immediately tell, a fact often used by defense attorneys to undermine the credibility of rape survivors. Like many others, she was afraid of being disbelieved, afraid of what she might have done to cause the assault and afraid of the violence her assailant threatened to commit if she said anything.
As with three-quarters of child victims, the truth spilled out by accident, Sullivan says.
Telling her mother ended the abuse. Johna’s mother believed her, and her attacker was removed from her life. But charges were never filed, and her assailant was never prosecuted.
Sullivan declines to say why, but that part isn’t uncommon either. Sexual assault is the most under-reported crime of any indexed by the federal government’s crime statistics. The closer the victim-offender relationship, the less likely it is to get reported.
Because of that, according to experts, most people don’t realize how prevalent it really is.
A few of us got a better idea after a seminar earlier this month at Florida’s Poynter Institute, which runs forums for journalists. This one was called Reporting on Sexual Violence. One clear message emerging from the week: To understand how common rape is and how badly it destroys lives, society needs to confront some basic assumptions about what rape is, who commits it and who is victimized.
It turns out much of what I thought I knew was useless.
Start with the word “rape.” There’s not even a common definition of it. Some crime indexes, such as the government’s Uniform Crime Report, limit their definition of rape to penile-vaginal penetration. Others, such as the National Crime Victim Survey, consider penetration with foreign objects, and include attempted rapes and male victims in their statistics. Yet another, the National Women’s Study, includes forcible oral and anal sex.
Because of the different ways sexual assault is defined and the data are collected, statistics vary widely. Some sources look at the number of rapes reported to law enforcement in a given year. Others have surveyed a random group of people to determine the likelihood of an individual being raped over a lifetime. Experts offer estimates of anywhere from one in three to one in eight women who are raped in a lifetime.
Having an accurate count matters in order for law enforcement, policymakers and the public to understand the magnitude of the problem and the resources and prevention approaches needed.
Sullivan knows these debates because she gravitated, as an adult, into a related line of work. She’s the director of the Crisis Intervention and Advocacy Center in Adel. She also knows that some of the approaches communities are using to stop sexual assaults against children won’t help situations like hers, which represent the majority. One of those is the Iowa law that requires people on the sex-offender registry to live no closer than 2,000 feet from schools or child-care centers.
“The current residency restriction law would not have protected me,” Sullivan wrote me. “My abuse was never reported to law enforcement and/or child protective services. Residency restrictions are based on the assumption that sex crimes against children are most often committed by strangers. Most often, however, children know the person who sexually abuses them and that person lives in their home.”
That gives lie to the biggest myth about sexual assault: of the stranger jumping out of the bushes. While that may be the most common media image, the vast majority of sexual assaults are by people known to their victims.
Defense attorneys exploit myths
Here are two more myths: That famous, rich or good-looking men would have plenty of access to consensual sex, so they don’t need to rape. That presumption has worked against the victims of rape by sports icons.
And a particularly ugly one: That rapes are likely to be of white women by black men. In fact, the overwhelming majority of rapes are committed by someone of the same race.
It’s not even necessarily true that a rapist gets sexual gratification from the act. Many do not ejaculate. Rape is about power and control more than it’s about sex.
One of the most pernicious ways of thwarting justice is the “good girls don’t get raped” mythology, which defense attorneys exploit by using misleading, irrelevant or false information about a victim’s sexual history.
That’s what the defense did in the much-publicized case of NBA star Kobe Bryant, who was accused of raping a Colorado hotel employee in his hotel room. The woman had testified that Bryant bent her over a chair from behind, grabbed her by her neck and forced himself inside her, causing vaginal tears and bleeding and leaving blood on his T-shirt.
Bryant’s defense attorney, in cross-examination, asked the woman if her injuries might have been caused by having sex with three different people in three days.
It was a lie, according to New England School of Law professor and former prosecutor Wendy Murphy. The woman said she had had sex with her boyfriend two days earlier. But the damage was done.
Understanding how that rumor arose and why it wasn’t put to rest offers some insight into why justice so often fails in sexual-assault cases. After the incident, according to Murphy, the woman had gone home and changed into underwear that was later examined for DNA evidence. Four dead sperm with no tails (not from Bryant) were found in it, but no semen, meaning the underwear had been laundered. That indicated the sperm couldn’t have been left there the same day. But when her attorney tried to dispute the defense assertions in a letter to the press, the judge sanctioned the attorney for disobeying a gag order and discussing the case outside of court.
Little wonder the woman eventually decided not to cooperate with the prosecution, and charges were dropped.
Recent reporting on the Duke lacrosse case, including a “60 Minutes” segment, also gives the impression that the prosecution’s case fell apart because the victim recanted the allegation (and therefore that it didn’t happen). But she didn’t recant about being assaulted. Only one charge, of rape, was dropped. Two others remain: first-degree sexual offense (also a Class B felony) and kidnapping. Those are still awaiting trial.
As to why the rape charge was withdrawn, instead of blaming the victim, you could blame the limitations of North Carolina law, which limits its definition of rape to penile-vaginal penetration.
According to Monika Johnson Hostler, who heads the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the woman was not certain whether a male organ or some other object had been used against her.
The object of penetration should matter less than the fact that it’s an unwanted physical intrusion on a person’s most intimate self.
Hurdles discourage reporting rape
The presumptions against women who report rape discourage some from reporting. Theoretically, it should help the prosecution’s case if a woman was drinking heavily, because a drunk person is incapable of giving voluntary consent. Instead, the drinking may be used to undermine her character. In about 45 percent of adult non-stranger sexual assaults, the woman had been drinking.
Women jurors are particularly judgmental about other women, according to Joanne Archambault, executive director of End Violence Against Women International. Victims of sexual assault tend to be disbelieved more than victims of any other crime. As Archambault says, the general assumption is that claims are false, while “nobody goes into a burglary [case] and says, ‘Prove you had a TV.'”
There are often no witnesses; physical evidence of a sexual liaison can be spun by the defense to make it appear consensual; and, because of the very personal nature of the charges, raising doubts about the victim’s character is an effective way to discredit the charges.
But experts say in only 2 percent to 4 percent of reported cases did the person make it up. And when she does, it’s not typically because she had consensual sex and then felt remorseful; it’s because she wanted to get attention and sympathy.
Sexual assault is a devastating intrusion, often with lifelong emotional consequences, not only to the victim but to all those intimately involved in her life. Ultimately it needs to be tackled beforehand, through prevention and education – of educators, day-care workers, families, church groups, youth agencies and the community at large – so it never has to make it to the justice system, where so much can go wrong. By then, the damage is already done.
REKHA BASU can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (515) 284-8584.
Myths about sexual assault:
MYTH:Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers. FACT: Seven in 10 sexual assaults are by someone the victim knows.
MYTH: Physical evidence never lies or misleads. FACT: Physical evidence may link a person to another but contact may have happened some time ago, and it does not explain the nature of the contact.
MYTH: Because a case was unfounded, it means the incident didn’t happen. FACT: A sexual-assault report can be determined to be false only when the evidence establishes no crime was committed. Only 2 percent to 4 percent of rape reports are false.
MYTH: What’s said by attorneys in court must be true. FACT: Defense attorneys can raise the possibility of an alternate scenario that has no basis in fact.
MYTH: Men always get sexual gratification from raping. FACT: Men committing sexual assaults may not get erections or ejaculate.
MYTH: A woman who was drunk or dressed provocatively was “asking for it, or reports of so-called “marital rape” or “date rape” are less credible or serious. FACT: Rape is rape. It is always illegal.
MYTH: If details of a story are changed, or someone waits to report a rape, it means the person lied about having been raped. FACT: Very few sexual-assault victims report the incident immediately, and details usually do get changed in the repeated telling.
Some additional facts:
– Women sexually abused as children are three times as likely to be raped as adults.
– Women who were raped before are seven times more likely to be raped again.
– Sixty-seven percent of reported sexual assaults collected by the government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics were to children, and 34 percent to children under 12.
– A woman who was raped has a more likely than not chance of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
– People who have been sexually assaulted, including as children, are more likely to develop eating disorders.
– For women, the likelihood of being raped on a college campus is one in four.
– An estimated 70 percent of sexual assaults are not reported.
SOURCES: Joanne Archambault, End Violence Against Women International; Susan Lewis, National Sexual Violence Resource Center; Monika Johnson Hostler, North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault; Wendy Murphy, New England School of Law.