Forty years after the women's rights movement brought attention to the widespread nature of sexual violence, the overwhelming majority of offenses still go unreported. Even when a brave victim does come forward, prosecution is rare and conviction even rarer.

That unpleasant reality was the starting point for this month's international conference on sexual violence at Middlesex University in London (where I was privileged to give a keynote address). Delegates from around the world -- including from Europe, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States -- met to brainstorm next steps in the battle against this catastrophic pandemic.

The consensus among delegates seemed to be that the legal system -- despite the best of intentions of many within it -- is ill equipped to rectify the "justice gap" between sexual violence perpetrators and their victims.

The "brick wall" (in the words of criminologist Betsy Stanko of "the Met," London's Metropolitan Police) blocking progress is built of so-called "rape myths" that make women unwilling to come forward, and impede successful prosecution when they do.

Myth Number One is that only bad and/or crazy men rape. As I explored in my opening keynote address, the promotion of this fiction by a powerful sex offender treatment industry has had the paradoxical effect of making the everyday rapist and child molester even less recognizable than ever by jurors and judges.

Myth Number Two is that men cannot control their sexual impulses. The corollary of this is to blame women for rape: Why did she get drunk? Why did she go with him? Why did she act (or dress) that way? Women have internalized these messages and so - unlike, say, burglary victims -- feel deeply humiliated and ashamed when they are raped.

Conference organizers Jackie Gray, Miranda Horvath and Susan Hansen (photo credit: The Times)

These myths are so universal in Western cultures that even feminist women working at a women's health clinic communicate them in private, informal conversation, according to new research by one of the conference's organizers, Susan Hansen of Middlesex University. (The other two organizers were Miranda Horvath and Jackie Gray.)

Compounding the problem is the fact that rapists tend to target vulnerable women who do not fit the profile of a virtuous victim, so do not make good witnesses. In the "vast majority" of London cases tracked by the Met, around 85 percent, victims were (1) seriously intoxicated at the time of their assault, (2) involved in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator, (3) mentally ill, and/or (4) minors, Stanko reported. These are not ideal victims, from the standpoint of successful prosecution.

What to do?

As noted by long-time activist Liz Kelly, chair of the Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit of London Metropolitan University, sexual violence exists on a continuum, from predatory leers, touches and verbal harassment -- to which virtually all women are subjected -- on up to illegal sexual assault. Direct confrontation of the male entitlement undergirding this entire spectrum of behaviors will be critical to meaningful progress against sexual violence, speaker after speaker emphasized.

In other words, delegates argued for reintroducing gender into the professional discourse. As Moira Carmody of the University of Western Sydney in Australia pointed out, gender-based analysis of sexual victimization is often perceived as too threatening. So it is replaced with gender-neutral discourse about interpersonal conflict, in which the gender of perpetrator and victim become interchangeable.

I had witnessed this dynamic in action at the international consortium on multiple-perpetrator rape, also at Middlesex University this month, where I gave another talk. As so frequently occurs in these types of professional gatherings, someone brought up the topic of female perpetrators, sidetracking discussion onto this tangential topic. I say tangential, because the reality is that group rape is an overwhelmingly male activity. Even on the exceedingly rare occasions in which women or girls are present, they are almost always auxiliaries, for example the wife of a sexual deviant, or a female gang member pressured to help her boyfriend procure a victim.

In addition to addressing the gender hierarchies and other power imbalances that facilitate victimization, we need to empower young people so that they perceive of themselves as active agents who have choices and practical tools for negotiating complex social situations.

Stieg Larsson, the author of the popular Millennium trilogy, did not feel this power when he was 15 years old. Thus, he did not intervene during a group camping trip, as three of his friends raped a 15-year-old girl. "Her screams were heartrending, but ... his loyalty to his friends was too strong," writes longtime friend and biographer Kurdo Baksi. "He was too young, too insecure." Larsson struggled with guilt for the rest of his life, even naming the heroine of his novels after the rape victim, Lisbeth.

To empower young people in these types of situations, Carmody has developed an educational program that trains participants both in how to behave ethically in their own sexual encounters, and how to be "ethical bystanders." The curriculum, funded by the Australian government, has been successfully introduced with boys, girls, men and women from a variety of backgrounds, from rugby players to Maoris in New Zealand to gay men and lesbians.

New Zealand is using this ethical bystander approach in an innovative public health campaign to combat an expected rise in sexual assaults during the Rugby World Cup. An eight-minute video, "whoareyou" (available online) pushes the idea that everyone is responsibility for the safety of those around them.

A first step in primary prevention, then, is teaching and training young people to behave ethically toward each other.

On a larger level, we will need to directly challenge the rape myths undergirding an entire spectrum of intimate intrusions by men and boys against those with less social currency. Only then will victims feel empowered to step forward, and will judges and jurors be able to recognize and condemn the everyday offender who stands before them.

Knocking down that brick wall will be no small task.

About the Author

Karen Franklin, Ph.D.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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