October 28, 2012

Speaking of Rape

There has been a lot of public conversation lately about rape.  Unfortunately, it is primarily from a political point of view, not a mental health point of view.  What the news makes clear is the incredible lack of knowledge, awareness and understanding by much of the public.  Any focus on this “pervasive public health” issue, as the Center for Disease Control describes it is beneficial because rape is still vastly under-reported.  Anonymous surveys reveal a much higher incidence of this crime than is ever reported to police.  Current estimates are that 50% of rapes are unreported.  The bizarre statements being made currently by politicians such as Todd Akin help explain this phenomenon.  Many women fear they won’t be believed or that they will be publicly humiliated if they come forward and the ignorance being displayed by public officials makes it easy to see why.

It is estimated that a little over 18% of women will experience rape or a sexual assault during their lifetime.  The CDC estimates that 10.5% of high school aged girls will experience a rape or sexual assault.  The FBI reports that in 2010 (the latest year for which complete data are available) 188,380 women and girls over the age of 12 were victims of a sexual assault.  Only 25% of rapes are committed by strangers.  Most rape occurs at home and is perpetrated by friends, acquaintances or family members.  The lack of reporting is certainly borne out by my experience as a psychologist.  Over many years women have revealed to me stories of sexual assault that they never reported to the police and in many situations never disclosed to loved ones.  Men are even more unlikely to report incidents of sexual assault.  We heard in the Sandusky trial and in the scandals in the Catholic Church the stories from men who were assaulted as boys.  Because of their sense of shame and humiliation they waited years to reveal these events.

Rape often has terrible and long lasting consequences for those who experience it.  A common reaction, as with any traumatic event is to feel ashamed and responsible, “I shouldn’t have gone out with him… I shouldn’t have had so much to drink….I should have told my mother…I shouldn’t have taken that bus…I shouldn’t have gone have gotten him so mad.”  For many people a rape destroys their ability to have sexual pleasure.  It may strip them of their ability to trust others and to form secure, loving relationships.  Post traumatic stress disorder is a chronic long term condition that occurs for a significant percentage of those who are raped.

Reporting a rape is itself fraught with challenges.  A woman who reports a rape to the police and faces a trial must be in the same room with her rapist, be accused of consenting or not taking sufficient action to avoid the rape and, because it is a crime which usually occurs in hidden locations,  it is often difficult to prove even with the best of efforts on the part of the victim and law enforcement.  When rape occurs in the family, young women are often not believed.  It is easier to believe that a troublesome teenager is lying rather than believe a person who otherwise seems respectable is capable of such an act.  In the Sandusky case I was deeply troubled by the report of professional who first evaluated Mr. Sandusky when concern about his behavior was first reported to the police.  The report stated that Mr. Sandusky “did not fit the profile of a pedophile.”  Rapists and pedophiles are rarely the wild, desperate criminals portrayed in the movies or on TV-they are the boy next door, the football star, the beloved uncle, the coach, the Parrish priest.  Because so many victims remain silent about these crimes we can continue in our fantasy that this is a rare event or something that only occurs to “loose women” or to poor people or is committed by people who look dangerous.

Public discussion and debate about rape and it’s impact is important.  We need to continue to reduce the misconceptions and lack of awareness about this very significant problem.