For the Love of Wisdom

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Myths About Campus Rape

What do we think rape is?

It is hard to imagine going through what others have. Yet the refrain ‘Oh, I just can’t imagine,’ always seemed to me the most heartless thing you could say to someone going through a loss. (What I always wanted to say back was, “Really. Try harder.”) So I should take my own advice in the case of rape, which I cannot imagine experiencing.

Of course, this is surely pretty normal. Who wants to think about rape, let alone imagine it? 

And that isn't to say I haven't fought a rapist off; like so many young women, I sure have. And yet I still can't imagine how awful actual rape can be. But it seems it is easy for columnists like George Will to put himself in the shoes of someone being raped, given his recent mockery of a college student's description of her own rape. Or maybe he fails to emphatize because he can't even identify with being a woman, and that's some kind of total obstacle. He should imagine being raped in prison, perhaps, by someone he was once kind to and knew. Then he might have more sympathy. I've already seen this trick, suggested by my husband to a few of his friends, work. 

Here's another trick. What if men like Will don't try to identify with women but listen to rapists? If they doubt college students reports of rape, or they decide there is no real harm involved, hearing from the men who plan and intend and enjoy the rapes might be what works on people like Will. It's sad to think, they may be more likely to believe rapists than young women. 

recent confession (faux or not) from a rapist on Reddit certainly helps us to imagine the experience more clearly than than we may have before. The anonymous person describing his raping habits mentioned a perspective (his) that I myself had never considered. He talked of how he would be sure to pick out women who had already shown interest in him. He talked of how easy it was to confuse them- so they were not sure if he was about to harm them or not. When it came to overpowering them, that was a cinch. He hardly had to try at all. He talked about how some of them left right away, and others seemed to linger in a daze.

I realized what this story replaced: the empty spot in my imagination when (the ridiculously termed) “date rape” would be mentioned.

At least I just had a blank.

It has become obvious that others take this concept to be something like “rape light,” or, as strangely, a notion used by duplicitous women trying to cover up their guilt for having sex. (By bringing more attention to it? I never understood this one.) 

Anyway, the Reddit post and its attendant controversies (if we let rapists have their say, aren't they going to enjoy it as a type of revictimization?) brought to life the research of David Lisak, a clinical psychologist at the University Massachusetts.

I wish Georget Will would read this research: 

"Understanding the Predatory Nature of Sexual Violence."

After gingerly pointing out how tired and useless the refrain “rape is about power” is, he moves on to the myths we hold about non-stranger rape. Myths such as the idea that it comes about through miscommunication.  Or that it can happen nearly by accident, especially if both parties are drunk. Or that it is not as common or not as harmful as stranger rape.

He has busted these myths by interviewing “undetected rapists,” rapists who have never been caught and who seem unabashed about what they have done.

And here is what they do:

*The vast majority of all rapes.

*Rape repeatedly.

*Identify “likely” victims, testing their boundaries.

*Plan and premeditate their attacks, for example, coming up with ways to isolate the victim physically.

*Use “instrumental” violence- that is very little, just enough to terrify a victim.

*Very rarely use a weapon, they have alcohol at their disposal and it works perfectly for them.

I know it isn’t a pretty picture. But it is better than drawing a blank. I'm not sure I ever thought rape would be prevented by explaining what counted as consent, as if kind people simply needed the information "no means no." But Lisak's research really demonstrates how naive that approach is.

It isn't some simple misunderstanding we are dealing with. Rapists are predatory in general. They seem to begin early, in high school. A percentage of them also rape children, the mention of which, I've found, makes their rape of young women seem more serious by association somehow. (If anyone is found normalizing rape or nonconsensual touching, as George Will seems to be, remind them that rapists are likely to have been raped themselvs. That's not good to normalize.)

Given what he has found to be the case about rape, Lisak does have some guidance for us. Let me quote him at length on what he suggests in a recent Q and A he did with Tim Madigan at the Star-Telegram.

If someone comes to law enforcement and alleges someone is pushing drugs, you do not just walk up to the drug dealer and ask him, Are you selling drugs? And if he says no, then just throw up your arms. What we do is investigate that guy, to find out if he’s dealing drugs, find out where he hangs out, where he lives, who knows him, who he talks to, who doesn’t like him, all of those things. This is what detectives do every day. We don’t expect to solve a drug case like that by doing a couple of interviews and walking out with a slam dunk. But we don’t apply that sort of basic investigative procedure to these sexual assault cases.

The starkest data from my study and the Navy study is that in both, over 90 percent of all sex assaults are perpetrated by serial offenders. Every report should trigger an investigation of that alleged offender. Who is this guy? What is his background? Talk to people who know him. Find out where he hangs out. When investigators do that, you’d be amazed by how many leads emerge. Very often, what starts out as an investigation of a single incident turns into an investigation of multiple victims and multiple incidents.

So that’s one aspect of this. Another aspect, even in the incidents that are often referred to as ‘he said, she said,’ there are all kinds of avenues to investigate. A couple of examples. Very often the investigators and prosecutors think that all the evidence that can be collected may be a medical exam, statements from the victim and alleged offender, and other witnesses, like those witnesses in the bar, who might have seen them.

What they completely neglect is all of the post-assault evidence in these cases. Almost without exception, the defense is going to be, ‘Yes, we had sex but it was consensual.’ But if it was consensual, what has happened to this victim in the weeks and months after this alleged assault? If you find her life has fallen apart, she’s dropped out of the university, started having trouble at her job, gained weight or lost weight, or is suffering from post traumatic stress ... all that is completely pertinent information if the question is, Was it consensual? That can brought to bear. Just as the defense in these cases invariably attacks the credibility of the victim, so can prosecutors bring in evidence like this, and the jury gets to weigh it. This is one of the areas that always needs to be part of these kinds of prosecutions, but very often is left out.

For more on Lisak's work, NPR has recently featured it in their program "Myths That Make It Hard to End Campus Rape."

 

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.

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