10 December 2014

Rape Is More Than Legalese

Much has been made recently about how to handle reports of sexual violence. There's the high-profile matter of the more than twenty women who have come forward with allegations of being drugged and raped by Bill Cosby. Recently, Rolling Stone magazine published a piece written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely about University of Virginia student Jackie's account of being gang-raped at a frat party. Erdely did not interview any of the alleged assailants, publishing only Jackie's account. In both cases, there has been a fierce insistence that the reports be framed in specific wording emphasizing that these are presently only "allegations", that both sides should be heard from in equal measure, and that taking accusations at face value is irresponsible.

I like to consider myself a fair-minded person, though I'm sure most people do. I can appreciate why our legal system is designed the way it is, with the burden of proof on the accuser and the defendant having the right to face said accuser. The basis of our system holds that between a Type I error (wrongful conviction) and a Type II error (failing to convict a guilty person), the Type I is the greater sin, and I personally believe in that. This is what everyone else seems to be arguing about, but I have no intention of addressing it further because the whole reason I'm writing now is that something greater is being missed:
We are collectively outsourcing the truth of a rape to the courts.
As a society, we have declared that a rape has only occurred if a jury says so; otherwise, we're simply too squeamish to even talk about the matter. It's okay not to be trained in counseling, of course, but the greater issue is that no one even wants to have that conversation. The only context in which we collectively have an interest in discussing rape is to suss out whether or not we have a villain on our hands.

We're not even nearly as committed to that aspect as we like to think we are. Study after study shows the unlikelihood of a conviction for rape. To begin with, the majority of survivors never report in the first place, for various reasons. It's customary to mention fear of reprisal as a key reason, and it surely is, but there's another more practical matter that's still poorly discussed or understood: It can take a long time for a survivor to process what happened.

TV shows and movies have taught us that rapists break in with knives or catch victims unawares on the street and drag them into alleyways. What we don't hear about, though, are instances of rape within the context of an established relationship. There's still a perception that being in a relationship includes some kind of implied consent for any and all sexual activities, carte blanche. Victims of this kind of assault may not even realize themselves for months, even years, that what happened was wrong. And when they do, self-blame becomes a paralyzing issue.

We could discuss ad infinitum the reasons why survivors don't report. There's a whole discussion to be had about how reluctant law enforcement agents can be about even pursuing these cases, or prosecutors who simply don't believe in the case, or why juries who hear the minority of cases that ever get that far and then declare it's unclear to them that what happened was, in fact, a violation. But all of these issues - which do matter in their respective contexts - are outside the focus of my point because in the end, it doesn't matter whether there's an arrest, a trial, or a conviction.

Rape survivors need to heal. Knowing that their rapist was held accountable can bring some peace of mind, of course; whether because it reaffirms their belief that people who do bad things ought to be punished, or simply the peace of mind knowing that that person will be behind bars and unable to attack again for the duration of the sentence. Most survivors will never know whatever comfort that brings, though.
It's unhelpful to link their healing to the conviction of their assailant, and it's outright unfair that we as a society have linked whether it even happened with that conviction.
If there's a conviction, we celebrate a job well done serving justice...and that's that. Except, it doesn't end there for the survivor. Those survivors who do get to see their rapists convicted and locked away are ultimately left with the same issues that all survivors face: How to heal? How to feel safe again? How to trust again? How to feel peaceful again?

We can accept at face value those who come forward and say that something happened to them. We can offer compassion to them. We can try to help them to feel safe. We can listen. We can trust. We can do all of these things independent of whatever may (or may not) take place in a court room - and we must, because living with the experience and aftermath of rape exists outside of a court room.