Rape is probably the most underreported crime in the United States. In a Department of Justice report on forcible rape published in 1978, it was estimated that only one-fifth of all rapes are ever reported to the police.
Why do so many women choose to remain silent after being sexually assaulted? To answer that question, one should look at the three institutions with which she will come into contact: the police, the hospital, and the courts.
. In most locations the patrol officer on call will respond to a complaint by a rape victim. This officer has probably had little, if any, training in dealing with rape. Later, the case is referred to an investigator who most likely works with all types of assaults. In some cities, female police officers are used to investigate rape cases; however, most investigations are still conducted by males.
Unfortunately, many police officers are antagonistic toward the female rape victim. They may feel embarrassed themselves at having to question a woman about a sexual assault. Very often police questioning focuses on the woman having “brought on the attack” herself by her dress, her inviting a man to her house, accepting a ride from a man, going to a bar unescorted, or by her past sexual experiences. The officer may dwell on the sexual aspect of the rape, asking her to describe her feelings during the attack, the rapist’s genitals, or the position in which he raped her. Fortunately, in many areas of the country police departments are establishing special rape units and training police to work with rape victims.
. Whether or not a rape victim intends to report an attack to the police, she should obtain medical care. When a woman who has been raped arrives at a hospital, medical personnel have a two-fold responsibility. They must treat the patient and also provide evidence for the police that a rape did occur.
In addition to checking a victim’s entire body for injury, a doctor should explain to her when she must return for pregnancy and venereal disease tests. A doctor will check for the presence of semen in the vagina as well as on other parts of her body and clothes. A rape victim should not wash herself before going to the hospital, and her clothing should be made available for the investigation. Doctors in hospital emergency rooms, where most rape victims are taken, do not always react sympathetically. Here, too, women frequently report they are subjected to hostile and irrelevant questions.
. A woman may report an assault to the police but choose not to press charges. However, if she does decide to file a complaint and the rapist is arrested, she may come to feel that she, not the rapist, is the person on trial. With few exceptions, statements by these victims describe their court experiences as unpleasant and difficult.
While the police and medical personnel often subject a rape victim to unfair questions, in the courtroom she must endure even more. Rape is defined as a crime against the state, and the victim is a “witness” for the prosecution. She may choose to have her own attorney, but that person only serves as an advisor; the court appoints the prosecutor over whom she will have no control.
The victim will often be attacked by the defense attorney on three major issues. (1) Consent. How much did she resist? Many rapists have been released on the grounds that a rape did not occur because the victim did not struggle. In no other crime would this issue be raised. If a person is robbed, she is not expected to resist the robber and refuse to surrender her money.
(2) Corroboration. A few states still require that another witness testify that the rape took place or that there is some evidence such as the victim’s injuries or the presence of semen. If the victim was not harmed or she delayed reporting the rape so that the semen had disappeared, there would be no physical evidence and the case might be dismissed. Going back to our robbery, one does not have to prove that she was carrying a wallet in order to charge someone with theft.
(3) Chastity. The victim’s past sexual behavior is often presented as evidence on behalf of the defendant. Testimony by a rape victim who admits to having sexual relations with someone to whom she is not married is used as proof that she is immoral and therefore, she is likely to have consented to intercourse. Conversely, the past crimes of the defendant are not admissible as evidence.
Acquittals in jury trials have been based on the admission by the victim that she had gone to a bar alone, that she was hitchhiking, that she showed no evidence of physical abuse, that she was dressed seductively, and that jury members found her unattractive (thus, why would anyone rape her?)
Looking at the number of people with whom a woman may have to speak in filing charges and the insensitive treatment she may receive, one can understand why some women who have reported a rape feel as though they have been raped a second time. There is usually a great deal of emotional conflict involved in making the decision to press charges or not. On the one hand, the woman may feel anger and want to see the rapist captured and punished; on the other, she may feel so humiliated that she does not wish to recount the details of the rape to the police.
Since the mid-1970s, many states have reexamined their laws regarding rape. While more changes are needed, the trend has been to revise rape statutes along the lines of other laws. That is, to define rape by degrees rather than as a single degree assault; to use
of injury as proof that rape occurred rather than insisting that a woman must have suffered actual physical injury by resisting the rapist; and, in a few states, to restrict the discussion of the victim’s past sexual behavior and the need for corroboration by proof other than the victim’s testimony. This gradual change in the rape laws has been brought about by two opposite forces; the women’s movement and police, prosecutors, and legislators who want rape viewed as a law-and-order, not a feminist, issue.
Although not all police, hospital personnel, and attorneys are intent upon protecting the accused rapist by making the victim appear guilty, it is not surprising that many women either do not report a rape or withdraw the rape charge before it is brought to trial. Some areas allow rapes to be reported anonymously or accept information from a third party. This is sometimes helpful in providing data for the police who are looking for a particular offender. It also may alert the police to an area where additional police patrols are needed. Charges could, of course, not be filed in these cases, but women might choose this alternative if they were unwilling to expose themselves as rape victims. Some elect not to report a rape because they feel the rapist will not be apprehended or they do not wish to recount the circumstances of the attack to others.
Rape Crisis Centers
. Perhaps more than with physical injuries, women need help with recovering from the emotional shock of a sexual assault. A growing number of rape crisis centers have begun to provide services for the rape victim. Their services may include a telephone answering line, group and individual counseling, escort service, self-defense classes, and women’s discussion groups. Since most of these centers have limited funds, they rely on volunteers to assist in their work.