This past weekend I read an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “To Catch A Rapist”. It highlighted the work of a dedicated inspector and some of her colleagues in the Special Victims Unit of Law Enforcement in New Haven, Conn. and the repeated roadblocks they come up against trying to prosecute sexual assault cases. It was powerful and informative and I would encourage anyone reading this to take a look at that article as well. First some statistics:

“End Violence Against Women International, a renowned research and training organization for law-enforcement officers and other professionals involved in sexual assault investigations, estimates that only 5 to 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported, depending on the population studied. And according to a 2011 report by the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women, only 14 to 18 percent of all sexual assaults reported to police are prosecuted.”

These statistics are even more dramatic when you compare them to reporting and prosecution of all other crimes. I am not shocked by these statistics – and probably neither are you. Because we already know that most rape victims are too ashamed, scared or unsure about what happened to report. And if they do report, they have little faith that anything will be done about it. Furthermore, the majority of rape victims are minors – some so young that they have no idea or words for what happened – and others threatened by their adult abusers or rebuffed by other family members when the abuser is known. Consider that a majority of the rest of the rape victims either knew their abuser – perhaps drugs or alcohol was involved - (think Bill Cosby or date rape), or else they are the mentally ill or prostitutes, who, second to minors, are the most likely targets, but are the least likely to be believed. Now you can see why the statistics are so dismal. But that doesn’t make it justifiable. It simply means that further work needs to be done educating both the public and law enforcement agencies.

“Real rape”, as described in the New York Times article, are those cases in which the victim is visibly physically injured with the suspect having used a gun or knife, and the rape is reported immediately. “In the minds of many police officers, prosecutors, juries, even victims themselves, a “real rape” is committed by a male stranger who uses a weapon to threaten the victim and inflicts serious injury.” And “real rape” in the mind of many law enforcement officers, prosecutors and juries, is also an assault where the victim’s “moral character or behavior” is above reproach. So that probably leaves us with over 90 percent of rape cases not considered “real rape”.

Because so many women, men and minors do not immediately report, the fault does not lie entirely with the law enforcement community or simply because of insensitivity to the crime. Part of the work lies in getting adults to be more vigilant and to come forward quickly – whether they themselves have been raped or they suspect a minor has been raped. Minors need to be educated as early as possible to what rape is and what to do if anyone tries to touch them – that includes parents, siblings, other family members, neighbors or religious leaders. And if non-abusing family members won’t believe them, then they should seek help from their friends’ families, other trusted adults, or more importantly, from their schools, where teachers as well as counselors have to be trained in handling these cases and reporting them expeditiously. Too many times, counselors do report, but then social services do not handle these cases effectively, either immediately pulling the child out of the home and into foster care or more likely not doing enough to protect the child because of lack of clarity or evidence.

For the victims, shame is a major part of the reason they don’t come forward. Victims, who are not ready to talk about it, should be encouraged to tell a trusted figure (i.e. a doctor or respected community person) who will keep their secret until they are ready to go to the authorities. At least then they will have someone that they told immediately afterwards, to corroborate their story. And don’t assume that it will be your word against his or hers. What we learn from the New York Times article is that “the most current thinking on sexual assault investigations is that there is always corroborating evidence. Detectives just have to be willing to search for it.” Regardless, the longer a rape victim waits, the harder it will be to bring the suspect to justice.

While it has been said many times that “no means no”, what victims of acquaintance rape have to understand is that even if you finally succumb in order to get it over with and get away from him/her, that doesn’t mean it isn’t rape. Don’t confuse resignation with agreement. No still meant no; and it wasn’t respected. If the abuser behaves that way with you, you can be sure that they will behave that way with others. By not talking, you are passively allowing that person to abuse others. Rape is always real.

When Storeowners selling products are robbed, they have had a crime committed against them and they report it. When prostitutes who sell sex are raped, they have also had a crime committed against them, but usually they don’t report it. When it comes to sex, just because you sell it, doesn’t mean anyone gets to hold you up without your consent and take it for free. The rape of a prostitute should be treated seriously by law enforcement.

As for our most defenseless group, minors make up 70 – 80 percent of all rape victims. And a large percentage of minors who are sexually abused go on to be abused as adults. The psychological damage to children who have been sexually abused is life-long. There is a limit to how effectively we can educate minors – especially very young children – to protect themselves and/or to report afterwards.
It is up to all of us to become much more vigilant in protecting children – everyone’s’ children. We should be aware of the signs – children who suddenly act out in a sexually inappropriate manner; children who withdraw, act depressed or exhibit extreme anger much of the time and perhaps start doing poorly in school. When children say that something is happening, we must listen. It may not sound believable. It may not sound possible based on your knowledge of who is being accused or what they are being accused of, but you must err on the side of protecting the child – not the adult.

And if family members won’t help, you must still pursue your suspicions until you find a reasonable answer as to why the child is crying out for help. Often, families turn inward and protect the abuser – either consciously or unconsciously. Young children don’t lie about these things (the exception being those prodded by adults who convince them that something happened which didn’t happen). And older adolescents – if they are lying – are still crying out for help – because something is wrong. The truth will come out if you look for it. It is better to discover that a child is psychologically disturbed and falsely accusing an adult, than to realize that you did nothing to help a child who has been sexually abused. While the subject of rape is being discussed seriously and getting more attention now, we still have a long way to go to make our children, women, and men safe from sexual assault.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

Author's Bio: 

West L.A. based psychotherapist specialized in treating sexual abuse, emotional abuse, trauma and communication/relationship issues.