First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin claims that he “misspoke” in this interview with a St. Louis television station on August 19, 2012. But although any individual can recognize the blatant medical inaccuracies presented by Akin, there is a far more sinister assumption being propagated in his statement. While it is one thing to debate abortion from an ethical or moral standpoint, it is another to determine what does, or does not, constitute a “legitimate” rape.
This is hardly the first in a series of incidents that have begun to foster a dangerous culture around the once taboo issue of rape. Unfounded and bigoted at best, these ideologies are finding their way into public discourse, thus normalizing and indeed, detracting from, the prevalence of these crimes.
This can, in part, be attributed to popular media’s effect on perceptions of sexual assault and rape. Despite social progression over the past decade, several landmark incidents clearly illustrate the continuing phenomenon of ignorance entering standard dialogue. In 2005, District Attorney turned Senate candidate Ken Buck dismissed the alleged rape of a student on the grounds that she was to blame, claiming that “a jury could very well conclude that this is a case of buyer’s remorse… it appears to me… you invited him over… the appearance is of consent.” On January 24 2011, worldwide marches were sparked in protest of the idea that a woman and her attire—not her perpetrator—were at fault for rape, when a representative of the Toronto Police stated “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized”. Then, on 6 July 2012, comedian Daniel Tosh publicly declared that “rape jokes [are always] funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious”.
Should these views be eligible for introduction into topical debate? For all their faults, freedom of speech indicates yes. But sheer numbers tell us no.
Between 2010 and 2011, Victoria Police recorded 1473 incidences of rape, where 92% of the victims were female and 8% were male. However, it has always been difficult to gauge the true extent of sexual violence. Statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology indicate that, whilst cases have increased by an average of 4% per year since 1995, many incidents still remain unreported.
With attitudes such as these being propagated through the public consciousness, it is little wonder that personal barriers exist in reporting these crimes. Incidents of rape are prone to assumptions of women in short skirts, walking alone in the dark and being naïve around strange men. As such, many victims who experience rape do not identify with having done so and, similarly, many perpetrators do not perceive themselves as rapists. Moreso, there is a tendency amongst victims to understate the nature of their assault, stemming from a fear of attracting social stigmas of victim blaming, questionable legitimacy and reprisal.
Even amongst university students, this features as a highly prevalent issue. In 2011, Universities Australia commissioned the Talk About It report. Through a survey of 1500 students, it examined experiences of sexual assault and harassment, perceptions of safety and views on how well incidents were dealt with once reported. The results that emerged were disturbing.
Incidents occurring at residential halls and colleges are far more common than many students believe them to be. Of the respondents, 17% reported that they had experienced rape and 12% had been victims of an attempt. Their attackers were acquaintances and friends (56%) or people that they knew intimately (22%). It is important to stress that these were usually not strangers—they were friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, people from one’s hall or the next hall over. Avoiding isolated locations at night would not have prevented these types of attacks. They are borne from a breach in trust between two individuals—a violation that is deeply personal in nature.
“He lived two doors down from me,” says Lisa*, a 19-year-old living on campus. “We started chatting at the Nott one night and went home together, but I barely remember it. I was so drunk. When we got to his room I realized I didn’t want to sleep with him. But he wouldn’t listen to me, he kept going… and I could barely speak, let alone put up a fight. The next morning people were grinning at me in the common room, giving him high fives. They didn’t understand. I just wanted to cry.”
Many victims, like Lisa, experience rape in circumstances where they do not, or do not feel able to, consent due to alcohol, pressure or physical intimidation. Perhaps, then, it is a source of great worry that more than half of victims believe that a particular incident is not serious enough to report. Indeed, as revealed in the Talk About It survey, only 3% of victims reported incidents to their university, and even fewer reported it to police. And even then, a majority were unhappy with how the case was dealt with.
Rape is a very real issue. It concerns very real people. And while its effects do vary, for a vast majority it greatly impacts upon their daily lives. Confidence can be lost. Mental health can be compromised with the development of depression or anxiety. Personal relationships can become plagued by self-blame and guilt.
That’s why it’s time to change the culture surrounding rape. Public discourse needs to be separated from bigoted opinion and media must refrain from broadcasting material that propagates the ethos of self-blame. Because, until then, the guiltless victims of rape are not receiving the justice that they deserve.
*Names changed for confidentiality purposes