What is Rape?
Thursday, October 28 2010
In Australia and the United States, the anti-rape movement began in the early 1970s, closely mirroring the progress of women’s rights movements and changing definitions of sexual assault. In the decades since, legal discourse has slowly developed to acknowledge that rape may occur within marriage or between cohabitating couples, and to focus on the victim’s consent rather than perpetrator violence as the key issue. Despite this, the shame and burden of proof still attached to the victim in instances of rape or sexual assault means that rape is one of the most underreported crimes in Australia.
Despite the severity and seriousness of rape and sexual assault, only 15-20% of rapes are reported in Australia each year. According to the International Violence Against Women Survey 2010, 57% of nearly 7,000 Australian women surveyed had experienced at least one incident of sexual violence over their lifetime. Regardless of the commonality of their experiences, over 25% of the women surveyed had never mentioned the incident to anyone before (and were only now mentioning it anonymously) and only 1 in 7 women reported the incident to the police.
The reasons for not reporting a rape or assault are varied. One of the initial reasons is simply that the victim is unsure about what constitutes rape or assault, and does not want to risk coming forward for something that may not be taken seriously.
In approximately two thirds of instances of rape in Australia, the victim knows the perpetrator. This makes it likely that the victim will choose to “forgive” the crime, or refrain from reporting the crime, for fear of hurting his or her social group or family.
Rape is also often seen as a gendered crime. Men who have been sexually assaulted or raped are less likely to report the crime than women, for fear of social and legal derision, should they come forward.
Should a victim consider reporting a sexual crime, the legal process involved is often daunting. As with any legal proceeding, assault and rape charges can be lengthy and exorbitantly expensive. The majority of people considering undertaking legal proceedings against an assailant have neither the time nor the money to dedicate to the all-consuming process. Beyond accessibility, victims often find the prospect of going to court so gruelling that it alone is enough to discourage reporting an assault. Although the burden of proof rests on the prosecution in Australian criminal proceedings, the victims in rape trials often feel a very great pressure to prove that they were “damaged” and did not consent to the assault.
Rape cases in particular often serve to very publicly question the character of the victim involved, and whether she/he in fact “asked for it”. The Victorian case of Hakopian in the ’90s suggested that a person convicted of raping a prostitute should receive a lighter sentence than that for the rape of a housewife. Cases such as these serve as a reminder that any person who proceeds with criminal charges against a perpetrator nominates themselves for a public examination of their moral value and sexual rights.
Consequently, a lack of trust in the criminal justice system results in many victims choosing not to report the crime. Even if a victim manages to report the incident and enter into legal proceedings, they are not then guaranteed peace of mind.
In the past ten years, an average of one in ten convicted rapists in Australia served a wholly suspended sentence and the average total served sentence for rape amounted to 7 years. Given the likelihood that a perpetrator may be released early, or never incarcerated at all, it’s not hard to see why many victims feel they cannot trust the criminal system, and don’t bother to pursue justice.
Various measures need to be undertaken to ensure that victims feel more confident in reporting rape and sexual assault, and that the legal system provides real reasons for that confidence. Social measures such as sexual assault education programs in school and universities, and community awareness programs about the prevalence of acquaintance rape, can ensure that victims are more aware of their rights. In addition, the legal community must continue to work to ensure that sexual crimes receive the same legal weight as charges such as “terrorism”, which consistently receive cohesive police attention and maximum sentencing. Most important is the need for community support for the victims, who will never feel safe reporting these crimes, when it is more likely that their own character will be put on trial.F