An Unseen Crime Epidemic

Much ink has been spilled, rightfully, about the devastating effect of sexual assault on its victims, as well as the malignant persistence of violence against women in our society and our university. Many of these accounts highlight the pernicious, sexist social structures that allow some men to treat women as no more than objects of sexual gratification.

Despite these efforts, many still consider sexual violence a niche, feminist issue. As such, they pay lip service to the depravity of sexual assault without truly appreciating it for what it is: an epidemic of violent crime. In fact, the epidemic of sexual violence is, importantly, an issue of failed law enforcement. Our ability as a society to curb this behavior is so drastically insufficient that one in six American women (and a higher rate of college students) is a survivor of completed or attempted rape.

I do not use the term “epidemic” lightly; there is simply no other word for a pattern of malicious criminal activity that pervades our culture so thoroughly as to touch everyone by a single degree of separation. (If you do not think you know someone who is a survivor, you are probably wrong.) Many people react to the jaw-dropping statistics about sexual assault by presuming that there must be something wrong with the definition of the crime; that many of these cases must be innocuous, mislabeled, or fictional. Yet such reactions evidence the most malignant nature of the epidemic: that it goes so unspoken as to appear fictional to the fortunate majority. The truth is that the cases reported in these statistics consist of unambiguous rapists and rape victims. Furthemore, the outsize public attention on false accusals rests on shaky ground. After all, recent research has found than the percentage of rape accusations that are determined false hovers somewhere in single digits. Yet, despite the millions of rape survivors, shockingly, only about six percent of rapes in America lead to jail time. That means that of the 17 million American women who are survivors of rape or attempted rape, 16 million were assaulted without that recourse against their assailant.

There is an important relationship between the likelihood that an offense will lead to imprisonment and how often people commit that offense. In his recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker notes that during the 1960’s, violent crime surged as the likelihood that a crime would lead to an arrest was cut in half by a newly permissive criminal justice system. It is certainly not outlandish to claim, as Pinker does, that laws are only effective when reliably enforced. A sporadically enforced prohibition makes the accused feel singled out rather than guilty and does little to deter the crime. And as far as unenforced prohibitions go, rape is exceptional.

Considering that a mere six percent of rapes lead to jail time, we must admit an uncomfortable truth: that we live in a state of de facto rape legalization. This may sound bizarre, considering that rape is heavily criminalized statutorily. Yet, insofar as one can reasonably expect to be punished for illegal activity, rape in America simply does not count. The rapists among us—those who sit next to us in class, play on our teams, live in our entryways—victimize women with impunity 94 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, this problem cannot be solved by simply putting more police on the street. The greatest obstacle to prosecution has little to do with the availability of law enforcement officials. Sixty percent of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police at all—a strange cultural artifact of the stigma of sexual assault in our society. Furthermore, some studies suggest date rapists suffer the delusion that women want to be raped, although they may not put it in such frank terms. These men, who consciously disregard women’s autonomy and disrespect their bodies, likely do not consider themselves rapists.

Most rapists pass unnoticed in society, accumulating victims and going unpunished. One study has shown that five percent of men attempt and commit over a quarter of sexual assaults, averaging five victims each during their life prior to the survey. Another found that fewer than ten percent of men committed over 90 percent of attempted or completed rapes. If the number of assailants seems high, its because the law is not acting as a deterrent. Since rapists have little reason to anticipate repercussions for their crimes, the current rate of attempted and completed rape reflects that of a society where it is legally permitted.

These features may make the enforcement of laws against rape difficult, but we are not incapable of the task. There are many avenues by which to increase the level of prosecution. The most obvious is utilizing education campaigns to reduce the percentage of unreported incidences of rape.

More importantly, we must root out those who commit sexual assaults and prosecute them. I do not wish to live in a society that half-heartedly seeks to provide safety for its people. The roadblocks to meaningfully outlawing rape are many, but the first step is creating awareness of the problem. Rape is a crime and should be treated like one.

Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.

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