By Roger Canaff
A hard-drinking and genius Senator from New York (Daniel Patrick Moynihan) was fond of saying that everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. When it comes to non-stranger sexual assault (the great majority), Moynihan’s admonition is no less true. So here are the facts:
1. Most incidents of sexual assault are never reported to police.
2. False reports of sexual assault hover around the rate of all other violent crimes (between 2% and 10%)
3. Most rape is serial rape, meaning most men who commit rape commit more than one (the average is 6).
These are research-based statements, and they have been confirmed in subsequent research efforts. This is what non-stranger sexual assault looks like, and it’s a plague. Interestingly, it’s a plague spread by relatively few offenders. Most men won’t commit what we understand legally to be sexual assault. They may be immoral, they may be disrespectful, but most are not rapists. They’ll stop when they recognize signs of fear, revulsion or discomfort on the part of their potential sexual partners (signs, by the way, that really aren’t hard to discern). If they come across an unconscious or semi-conscious woman (or man), they won’t shimmy the clothes and underwear off of the person and sexually penetrate her or him.
Rapists, on the other hand, do what they do because it’s how they view sex and sexuality. They usually aren’t “traditional” criminals, meaning they often aren’t tattoo-covered, grinning TV villains. They don’t wear masks or jump out of bushes; they don’t have to. Instead they rely on the myths that surround and permeate the notions we as a society have about sexual violence. They employ remarkable cunning whatever their educational level in order to identify victims, and they usually use alcohol or other intoxicants to ready their playing field. When they strike, it looks like exactly what they want it to look like- confusion, equivocation, and what some in the media have termed “gray rape.” It’s almost never a clear-cut, “real” rape. “Real” rape involves scary looking guys with darker complexions than ours who jump out of bushes and attack complete strangers. Everything else is…well…a part of the dating ritual. A rite of passage. Just desserts for dressing slutty, drinking too much, staying out too late, and for leading on red-blooded American boys. Because after all, boys will be boys.
Believe that tripe if you will, but you might as well insist the earth is flat. The reality-based among us understand that things like terror or incapacitation really aren’t that difficult to recognize for most men, and that most men take those cues and back off when they see them. Nevertheless, the deniers will insist that sex is kind of a game, and testosterone is a funny thing, and ordinarily good guys might sometimes push things too far even though they’re really solid, respectable men at heart. And of course, the assumption is that ordinarily good gals will sometimes naturally regret sexual liaisons that threaten their reputations and sense of self, and thus naturally “mistake” a consensual act for a nonconsensual one, thus resulting in a call to the police. Ah, and don’t forget the legions of gold-digging, devil-women who haunt the bars and dance clubs of the world, looking to sting athletes, actors and other celebrities with false charges of sexual violence for the chance at a civil suit payoff or a reality show debut. It happens all the time. Right?
No. It really doesn’t. No more than “gray” sexual situations involving force and incapacitation regularly produce reports to law enforcement and subsequent dramatic trial dramas. In fact, the opposite is true. Most women in clear-cut situations of sexual assault blame themselves and move on, let alone unclear situations where they really can't remember or fully grasp what transpired. That being said, are people capable of lying about sexual assault? Of course. Do they? Of course. But is there any reason to believe that most people who allege sexual assault are 1) mistaken, or 2) lying? No. There is zero replicable, scientifically based evidence to suggest anything like that, and quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.
That’s where Start By Believing comes from (a disclaimer- I sit on the Board of Directors of End Violence Against Women, International, the group behind the SBB campaign). SBB is revolutionary, and it should be. It represents a radical, new look at how we view cases of sexual violence. The bottom line is that, in the vast majority of cases, there is no reason to doubt the victim making the allegation. Further, even if one believes the victim, blaming her for “her part” in inviting her victimization is both wrong-headed and counter-productive.
Victims don’t invite rape; they are chosen by rapists who seek them out and recognize them as attractive targets.
A victim is never responsible for what “she did” to bring on a sexual attack. I’m a lawyer. I understand that the concept of “contributory negligence” (the idea that the injured person did something to contribute to his injury) is deeply embedded in the Anglo-American psyche. But that’s not how sexual assault works. Instead, sexual assault is a planned attack against an identified victim, chosen exactly because the offender figured she either 1) wouldn’t report and/or 2) wouldn’t be believed if she did. Further, the initial reaction a victim of sexual violence experiences has everything to do with how easily she can relate her own experience to authorities, how effectively she can assist in the case against her attacker, and (most importantly) how quickly she can heal.
SBB is about changing the attitudes of the rest of us- those who will be the person a victim turns to when the unthinkable happens. If we simply start by believing- not judging, not questioning, not rationalizing- but simply believing, then we will be contributing remarkably to the healing process of the victim and (possibly) to the prevention of further attacks. In fact, it's not that radical when we break it down. We look at purse-snatchings this way. We look at assaults and car theft this way. When it comes to just about every other crime, we generally start by believing. There is nothing- absolutely nothing- to lead us in any other direction where sexual violence is concerned.
Take the next step. For your daughters, your sons, your sisters, your partners, your spouses, your neighbors, your friends. The damage being done is incalculable, but so are the rewards when the tide is turned. It's time.
Roger Canaff, www.rogercanaff.comAnti-violence Advocate
Board Member, EVAWI