Trigger warning: accounts of rape and discussion of how these rape conversations are cyclical.
Every time we go ’round the rape mulberry bush, well-meaning newcomers to the conversation make unreasonable demands of victims of a crime. It seems obvious to anyone armed only with common sense that if you are the victim of a crime, you report it to the police. So these newcomers make demands of the victims, and some long-term participants in the same conversations actually relish the opportunity to argue the same ground again. The demands almost always include that rape victims be re-victimized by submitting their life to intense scrutiny by the police and by bystanders who are reflexively defensive of the accused.
The “why didn’t you report it” refrain is on balance of probabilities an unreasonable demand to make of a rape victim, because while these people very likely were raped, they are very likely not put into contact with resources to help them cope, but instead are treated as false rape statistics. Some people have the resources to dig in and fight the police to have their rapes taken seriously, but oftentimes are bullied by the police into recanting:
I did everything they requested, answered every invasive question (the were really focused on my mental health history!), even got on the ground and acted out the rape for them, with the head detective on top of me acting out the part of the rapist. Not only was I absolutely hysterical by the time we were done, I’m positive that aggravated my PTSD for a long time after.
And after all that, I was called in for an “interview” to discuss “a new lead in your case”. They didn’t let my rape counselor in the room–again, against the law, I found out later! For about an hour (I think; my sense of time was not that great) they were no longer even pretending to be supportive. They accused me over and over of making it up. They had very flimsy “evidence” (which I won’t go into because it’s both complicated and ridiculous) but mostly it was their “instinct”.
Because I have a mental illness. Because I was hospitalized after attempting suicide. Because I “claimed” I had been sexually assaulted in the past. Because I was crazy, and he was sure I was just looking for attention.
The detective looked at me. His whole demeanor changed; he tried to seem kind, avuncular. “Tell me you made the whole thing up. This whole thing will disappear. Nothing will happen to you. You can leave, if you just tell me you made it up. Tell me you made it up and you’re sorry for lying, and I’ll let you leave.” I tried to hold out–but I didn’t last long. Honestly, at that point, all I wanted in the entire world was just to get out of that room. There are very few things I wouldn’t have done, if I could only leave. So I looked at him and lied. I said, “I made the whole thing up. I’m sorry.”
Even when a person has the mental resources to fight their way through a recalcitrant justice system to be taken seriously, there are still hurdles that one might not be surmountable, like lack of evidence, even when the person reporting is clearly distraught at having been drugged and taken advantage of:
They called the police and collected a bunch of evidence from my vagina. And photographed my raped-parts. And while they were documenting the state of my pelvic region as a crime scene, and while sort of forgetting that my vagina was actually attached to a human being who was still in the room and could fucking hear them, I got highlights about what was happening “softball sized bruise on left inner thigh” “blonde pubic hair”… and then later I’d be asked things like if I knew where a giant inner thigh bruise came from or if I had consentually rubbed pubes with any blondes.
“This is ____ from the Decatur Police Department. Your rape kit came back. No semen was found. Evidently nothing happened. Please let your parents know.”
Even if you do everything right, people will call you a slut and ruin your reputation because you (unwillingly) opened your legs to someone. People will talk about how horrible it must have been to be falsely accused of rape, and will try to poke holes in your story, and will do whatever they can to revictimize you because in our culture, the fact that “innocent until proven guilty” in a court of law apparently also means “guilty of making false accusations until proven innocent” to rape victims. It’s a given that if you report, you’re going to get put through the wringer, and if your rape kit — an invasive procedure done on your recently-violated orifices — doesn’t produce ironclad evidence, then you were making the whole thing up and are a pariah.
Even if it actually happened. Even if you were really raped.
It’s not like there’s no ready defense of “she’s promiscuous and really wanted it” or “she’s a lying bitch” that can be used to muddy the waters, even in absence of other lies or one-night stands.
And in many cases, consent might be coerced out of a person. Another of the repeated suggestions by those armed with common-sense and not much else, is that maybe we should find a way to set up proof of consent — that we could change the paradigm around sex so as to include some sort of binding contract. But even with such proof of consent, it’s difficult to prove that contract wasn’t signed with a gun to your head. Or that even if you were totally interested in fooling around, you weren’t interested in having your own boundaries crossed and weren’t interested in going further than a certain point.
Like, say, wanting to mess around with someone but not wanting anal sex, but being drugged so you can’t refuse:
The whole bus ride home I stayed numb. I initiated this, right? I hit on him and went home with him, right? Why be so stupid and then act surprised? I don’t remember fighting him off (hell, I barely remember much after the initial penetration), so it wasn’t rape, right? Stupid drunk slut.
It was years before I told a therapist about it, and really, I was looking for scolding or absolution from her. Some certain frame to put this in. I still wasn’t even sure I was raped. I was attracted to him, and I did want to have sex with him. Fooling around. Jacking off. Blowjobs. And I was super turned on at the start. So it couldn’t really have been rape, right? My therapist was far more understanding than I was to myself; none of this surprised her and she had no trouble saying, “Yes, you were raped.”
There are plenty of reasons not to report being raped. The numbers are absurdly low with regard to your actually seeing justice done. You might have never admitted to yourself that it was rape. There might be insufficient evidence. You’re going to get put through the legal (and emotional) wringer. If you have the resources to actually pursue a rape allegation through the legal system, you might be surprised as to how much resources the system actually takes. And so, telling rape victims to go through this after the other emotional trauma they’ve just experienced, well, that’s simply and frankly a total failure of empathy. It’s either an innocent one, predicated on a misunderstanding of the scope of the problem rape victims are now faced with, or it’s a deliberate one, because you honestly and truly prefer the status quo where the victim of a rape is by necessity re-victimized.
As though nothing else matters but men getting their dicks wet. As though bitches be lyin’ when someone claims to never have consented to sex — as though it’s more likely it’s just “locker room banter” or “regret after having sex” with someone they later deem “skeezy”.
Yes, false rape claims happen — I should know. These conversations have cost me a lot as a result, because though in my case it really was a false rape claim, the whole cultural system is skewed to assume almost everything is a false claim. And so my being one of the exceptions but still speaking out against rape culture has evidently made enemies of people who would revictimize me because I don’t fit into their narrative that false rape claims are more serious than actual rapes.
Many of these false claims don’t make it to the legal system, though — like my own. The system, horrible as it is at producing justice for those who are really raped, seems to be pretty damned good at weeding out cases with insufficient evidence. The likelihood of someone going to jail who’s innocent is exceedingly rare, though most of the time when it happens, it’s a misidentification of the perpetrator of the very real crime. The Innocence Project is a good way of fixing that particular set of injustices, but it would be better if people weren’t bullied into silence in the first place. The relative number of false rape claims (if you mean maliciously untrue claims) would drop precipitously if people were no longer silent about being raped.
And so people aren’t being silent. They’re talking about their stories. And yes, sometimes they’re talking about these stories, on the internet, where any jackass can decide that every single story of rape is patently untrue, and can troll these people and make their lives miserable at absolutely zero cost to themselves.
That’s the rape culture we’re talking about, people. The one where it costs more for a rape victim to talk about their stories than it does to make these victims’ lives miserable, even when nobody in particular is being named.
I sort of ended up in this conversation accidentally, when bloggers I know and respect started discussing rape during a campaign in 2008 called “Silence Is The Enemy”, discussing systemic rape in places like Uganda. I have a tendency of watching conversations for tropes being repeated, finding ones that need challenging, and focusing on them in an effort to stamp them out when they’re patently wrong. Memes get entrenched though. Memes like the “you’re not serious about justice if you don’t report it to the police” one don’t help any conversation about rape. If you’re about to make that assertion, you’re hurting the rape victims by revictimizing them.
That rape is underreported is a shame. The reason it’s underreported is because people don’t take rape claims seriously — by helping victims, and by investigating the crimes — nearly as often as they should. If people would trust-but-verify when someone claims to have been raped, rape victims will be put into contact with people who can help them cope with what’s happened, and maybe rapists — the majority of whom are not violent stranger-rapists — would be more likely to be put in jail.
And maybe then rape wouldn’t practically be a protected crime in this culture.