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Society has an ethical obligation to report rape

It shouldn’t necessarily be up to the victim

November 22, 2014 2:00AM ET

Comedian Sarah Silverman, who recently came under fire for a provocative tweet about Bill Cosby, once observed that rape jokes are “a comic’s dream … ’cause the material is so dangerous and edgy. The truth is, it’s the safest area to talk about in comedy. ’Cause who’s going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims? They’re traditionally not complainers.”

I saw Silverman do this routine live and thought it was a great example of a rape joke that’s actually funny, though I’m sure others might disagree. I believe she was highlighting a very real social problem, not mocking victims.

Her sketch hinges on the well-documented problem of the underreporting of rape. With the allegations of a growing list of women against Cosby dominating the news cycle, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought.

Cosby’s accusers, of whom there are seven to 14, have disturbingly similar stories to tell. According to their accounts, he had a clear modus operandi, targeting young, vulnerable women, many of whom were trying to break into the entertainment industry, offering to advise them, then drugging and molesting or raping them.

If these allegations of repeated assaults are true, they are not unusual. Current research on sex crimes suggests that men who rape frequently have multiple victims. Statistics on rape recidivism rates vary widely, and it’s hard to know how to interpret them. Some studies count only additional rape convictions as reoffenses; others tally new charges brought after a rapist is released from jail after his first offense.

Television shows such as “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” convey the impression that nearly all rapists rape again. While this is likely a gross exaggeration, research suggests that some portion of rapists are repeat offenders, driven by compulsion and entitlement. As a society, we need to make it harder for rapists to rape and continue to get away with it. And one important tool is reporting the crime.

That’s not to say that reporting rape is a perfect means of combating it. In 2011 and 2012, only about 7 percent of reported rapes resulted in convictions. This may be partly due to enduring myths about rape victims. Many still think if the victim “asked for it” or consented to prior sex acts, with the defendant or anyone else, it’s not that terrible a crime. But it’s also due to the fact that the burden of proof is high and conviction rates for several common crimes, including burglary, are low.

Adding to the problem is the fact that rape trials have often been characterized as a second rape — though that was arguably more apt before rape shield laws barred defense attorneys from introducing evidence of a victim’s prior sexual conduct. Whether or not a trial is as bad as the assault itself, it is undeniably difficult. Rape kits are physically intrusive, and going to court can be nightmarish.

It’s critical to public safety to figure out how to encourage more women to come forward sooner and, when possible, how to prosecute sex crimes without their help.

But failing to report rape has potentially disastrous implications. It has become commonplace in many settings, particularly on college campuses, to emphasize that the victim is not obligated to report the crime. Sometimes, as in the case of deans at the University of Virginia, this serves the institution in question more than it serves the victim. A harrowing Rolling Stone article published on Nov. 19 suggests that rape culture is so pervasive at UVA that multiple victims of brutal gang rapes wander the campus in silence, feeling suicidally depressed. The article further alleges that under the guise of offering impartial advice, the deans tasked with handling rape complaints are tacitly discouraging rape victims from reporting the crime to local police — an outcome that could benefit the victim and the rest of society but pose a public relations nightmare for UVA.

Even if advice not to report a crime is sincerely offered as unqualified support to a traumatized person, it’s unquestionably bad for society and, in the long run, arguably bad for the victim as well. Many victims report feeling liberated and empowered by the decision to face their attackers in court.

I’m not a psychologist, nor am I a survivor of rape. This is a decision I hope I never have to make for myself. And if someone I loved were attacked and said, “It would kill me to report this,” I would probably support her decision. But in cases in which a victim is unsure what to do next and is seeking advice and support, the default should be to encourage reporting.

Several states allow police and prosecutors to file domestic violence charges without the victim’s consent or cooperation. This may not be possible in most rape cases, but I would argue that it should be standard operating procedure whenever it is.

There are many entirely rational reasons women, who account for the majority of rape victims, are less than eager to report the crime. They may not want to be publicly branded crazy, lying, money-hungry sluts, as numerous online trolls have labeled Cosby’s accusers. They may not want to endure the suggestion that they are inventing the rape to cover shame over regrettable, consensual sex, as the president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania suggested several female students did earlier this month.

It’s no mystery why women don’t report rape — or why, as in the case of Cosby’s accusers, they wait until the statute of limitations has expired and it’s too late to do anything about it. But it’s critical to public safety to figure out how to encourage more women to come forward sooner and, when possible, how to prosecute sex crimes without their help.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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