The Ugly Truth About Rape Culture

I don’t know if our society will ever really accept the truth about sexual assaults.  There is still a wide-spread rape culture in our country housing beliefs of placing some blame on sexual assault victims. Basically, many feel that it comes down to victim accountability- what he/she was wearing, what were they doing, who were they with, and why were they there? “Maybe if they hadn’t been dressed like that in that neighborhood in the first place.” If the victim has any type of shady entanglements then the whole act is void, right?

Social conditioning has worked against labeling what is and isn’t rape. Criminal acts of sexual assault are defined by state statutes with clearly stated legal definitions.  Sexually violent acts are also known to us as moral code violations. Attached punishments are harsh.

Still, many believe a person cannot be sexually assaulted by their spouse or while someone has been in a relationship with the perpetrator. Normalizing sexual assault and abuse is horrific, isn’t it? Perhaps many people do not understand what the violence truly is or collectively believe much of these cases are trivial. It is a perplexing quagmire of social injustice.

If you think about it, how many of us have been told by our parents or have told our own children, “Honey, don’t dress like that. You are asking for trouble.” Asking for trouble. Have you heard someone utter those same words in reference to a headline about a sexual assault case? Maybe you have also listened to people grumble, “Well, if they hadn’t been doing drugs they never would have been in that position in the first place.”

What? Do we really believe the victim is accountable for the act of sexual assault?

Believing the sociological and anthropological viewpoints that sexual violence is overstated, should be normalized, and is exaggerated by most victims is dangerous thought and very counterproductive to eliminating this type of violence from society.  After all, we don’t want to ruin any one’s life by charging them with a sexual assault when it was the victim’s fault. Right? You may have gasped at this notion, but the embedded belief that most sexual assault cases are false accusations has bred this kind of theory and reasoning in much of the public, even today. It is a conditioned response in our social culture.

Isn’t there more focus on the suspect’s reputation than the crime at times? We are reluctant to believe a victim. Does that sound crazy or does that sound about right? It has been conditioned in our society through violent conversations, television, and misogynistic attitudes. Public opinion on a victim’s lifestyle also impacts their compassion for a victim. Several influences have been a catalyst to developing these perspectives into norms. It goes equally for male victims. In fact, male victims might be believed less.

People think and believe this way all day long. I heard it as a cop and I am sure you have heard it in public or private conversations. Have we all been susceptible to falling into some doubt one time or another? Maybe when we have good intentions about sexual assault prevention, we actually have accelerated the rape culture problem unintentionally.

Two ruckers donned 40-pound ruck sacks at the 2017 Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention 5k Ruck, Run, or Walk event on April 8, 2017 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo credit: Wyoming National Guard

I am even guilty of telling my daughter how to dress appropriately in public. In the back of my mind I don’t want her to invite unwanted advances nor any negative perceptions to her reputation. We have been taught about “appropriate attire” and “proper behaviors” all our lives. Only recently has society lessened the acceptance of dress codes. Didn’t we grow up with Miss Manners and etiquette protocols? Don’t we still believe most of it is true?

Additionally, people shouldn’t walk around or stroll through “those parts of town” because doing so just invites problems. Right? Don’t we tell that to our kids? Is that good prevention or could it also be indirectly placing some unacceptable behavioral patterns into our thought processes and societal beliefs which in turn affects our judgement upon victims?

If the victim behavior is unacceptable to us or they delve into forbidden activity like illegal substance abuse or alternate lifestyles, is the crime of sexual assault lessened because you believe they were a part of the problem? Think about that for a moment.

Is victim blaming different if a person leaves their car unlocked and gets their vehicle burglarized or if homeowners leave the door unlocked and have their belongings stolen? They were just inviting crime, weren’t they? No. We don’t believe that. What if you changed the neighborhood? Say the car was left unlocked in a high crime district versus the upper end of town? Should the burglary victim in the high crime district have known better? But do we then raise our brows in shock and horror that the “good” neighborhood was hit? It brings perspective to things when we reflect upon the elements.

Do you see how twisted around our perceptions are of what a victim looks like or who is or is not a victim? Did all of this attitude bleed into our perspective of sexual assaults? I don’t know. It sounds plausible.

You know what is one of the biggest obstacles to law enforcement and prosecutors in sexual assault cases? Juries. Juries are comprised of average, reasonable thinking adults who believe just like this. So naturally when a prosecutor presents a victim from a rough background who is addicted to drugs, they lose some sympathy and start looking at how the person should have avoided the situation. Sometimes it comes down to who they like more-the suspect or the victim.

I would like to say sexual assault cases provide an abundance of DNA and physical evidence to prove the crime existed in a cut and dried manner. They don’t. They are difficult and present challenges because it involves more testimony than physical evidence. Many jurors like to grasp tangible evidence.

Conveniently, defense attorneys like to show the DNA results as a defense and use the physical evidence to say the contact was consensual. Perhaps if the jury saw pictures of the victim beat to a pulp in a bloody bath they would then use that as the threshold of reasonable doubt, concluding the suspect did in fact rape the person. It is easier for citizens to fathom the criminal aspects of rape in a human trafficking case as well. Sure, there are some cases horrifically portrayed just like that. Is date rape any more or less horrific? Does it deepen our concern if there are physical injuries to accompany the mental trauma?

Several police sexual assault investigations have no evidence of physical injury. Some criminal cases involve established relationships between the victim and suspect such as dating and marriage where the perpetrator isn’t even a stranger. So what can we do better to dispel the long seeded opinions of rape culture?

Ultimately, the goal of police is to apprehend sexual assault offenders and bring them to justice. Several law enforcement organizations have moved to a multi-disciplinary form of investigation. Advanced courses, team training, community outreach, and community coalitions aid a detective in becoming detail oriented in order to gather all the pertinent types of evidence while recognizing and identifying many aspects to sexual violence.

Team approaches have been very successful in building stronger cases when the police detectives coordinate with first responders, evidence technicians, prosecutors, victim and court advocates, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (S.A.N.E.) and other medical professionals, mental health experts, and addiction specialists. This approach serves many purposes including but not limited to:

  • Better serving the victim’s needs and rights
  • Building community partnerships working toward eliminating sexual violence in communities
  • Collecting information about the crime and surrounding circumstances
  • Comprehending substance abuse and addictions
  • Crime scene management
  • Improving interview and interrogation skills
  • Increase investigative responsibility
  • More successful prosecutions
  • Preserving statements and evidence integrity
  • Producing a more thorough investigation through corroborating evidence and statements
  • Understanding perpetrator as well as victim behavior
  • Understanding the complexities of mental trauma

Combined ventures from victim advocates and community professionals have established many nationwide efforts to reduce sexual assault occurrences and raise social awareness of the problem.  It helps to define what rape culture is and to educate the public about it. Additionally, law enforcement and community professionals can reduce the effects of rape culture and raise sexual assault awareness by incorporating several elements into their communities. These ideas and actions include but are not limited to:

  • Create better advocacy and improved victim services through coalitions and community partnerships
  • Educate and engage the public through various forms of media and forums
  • Host seminars, conferences, and discussion panels
  • Improve public policy
  • Launch community programs and services
  • Lobby for stronger legislation
  • Volunteer
  • Participate in events for sexual assault victims and awareness

It is evident sexual assault cases pose many challenges for law enforcement and prosecutors. Due to the uniqueness and complexity of circumstances in these cases, many jurors feel a certain weight of evidence is needed for arrest and prosecution. Police need probable cause.  The courts need beyond a reasonable doubt. Even if a case is not prosecutable, victim services and advocacy are paramount.

Efforts to raise sexual assault awareness and prevention are prevalent in many communities. Sexual violence is a serious social problem which is perpetuated by a deeply rooted rape culture. By working collectively to eliminate sexual violence, we can all attribute to quality of life, public safety, and individual protection. Rape culture will not go away overnight but with valiant efforts from many sides of the spectrum, we can make a difference. The victims deserve it.