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Countering sexual assault statistic critics

IMAGINE that your house has been robbed. You are distraught because your house has been ravaged, and many of your personal possessions have been taken. While you are in this state of mind, the police come to investigate the crime. Instead of their assurance that the perpetrator will be caught and perhaps even their sympathy, they begin asking you preposterous questions. "Did you have something valuable lying in plain sight?" "Why didn't you get a better security system?" "Forgetting the window open like that, it seems like you were almost asking to be robbed."

Multiply that by about a thousand and you'll know how a rape victim must feel. Is it any wonder, then, that so few come forward to report the attacks made on them?

Brett Ferrell and Sam Ross' Viewpoint Column ("Bogus one-in-four rape statistic exaggerates problem, promotes fear," The Cavalier Daily, Aug. 12) only perpetuates the idea that rape victims should be doubted when they report a crime, and that because rapes aren't reported they aren't happening.

Ferrell and Ross approach the idea of rape as if the only "real" type of rape occurs when a person is sexually assaulted by a stranger. However, the Bureau of Justice defines rape as being "forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity." This can occur between people who know each other -- not just strangers -- and the sad fact is that it does.

Ferrell and Ross expressed disbelief that statistics on flyers posted by Sexual Assault Facts and Education were true. They specifically were skeptical about the statistic that one out of every four women has survived rape or attempted rape since her fourteenth birthday because of what they call "methodological and analytical errors" in the research from which it was drawn. The "errors" they cited were, first, that 73 percent of those defined as victims of rape did not themselves believe they had been raped, and secondly, that 42 percent of the women later had sex again with the men who had raped them.

The first "error" Ferrell and Ross found is easily disputed. Many women may not even realize that the experiences they have been through are legally defined as rape or attempted rape. Most men don't know what constitutes rape, even if they have committed it themselves.

In a 1992 report from the National Victimization Center, 1 in 12 male students surveyed had committed acts that met the legal definition of rape. However, 84 percent of the men who had committed such acts said what they had done was definitely not rape.

A large part of Ferrell and Ross' argument was that the one-in-four rape statistic isn't true because the student body reported only 16 sexual offenses in 1999. They argue that these statistics vary from SAFE's statistics by a substantial amount and that, therefore, SAFE's statistics must be incorrect.

What Ferrell and Ross don't know and apparently failed to research is that there is a reason the American Medical Association calls rape the "silent-violent epidemic." It is generally accepted that less than half of rapes are reported to authorities. Recent surveys have found the number of unreported rapes to be even higher than half. The Bureau of Justice's 1997 National Crime Vicitmization Survey found the number of unreported rapes to be even higher, at 69 percent.

There are a few reasons that rape is so underreported. There is a social stigma attached to victims of rape that is unlike anything a victim of any other violent crime has to face. Rape victims have a sense of shame and tend to blame themselves for what happened to them.

Another reason that so many rapes go unreported is because, out of all types of crime, victims of rape and sexual assaults are the most likely to have known the offender. The Bureau of Justice's survey found that more than 70 percent of rape/sexual assault victims knew their attacker.

A 1994 Bureau survey found that approximately 28 percent of victims are raped by husbands or boyfriends, 35 percent by acquaintances, and 5 percent by other relatives. This is why some women may have sex again with the people who attacked them, the second "error" Ferrell and Ross cite.

Because many women know their attackers, they may not report the crime out of fear of retribution, fear of not being believed, shame because they feel somehow to blame, or even some sense of loyalty to the assailant. In a 1992 National Victim Center survey, rape victims were asked why they did not report the crime to the police. Forty-three percent thought nothing could be done, 27 percent felt it was a private matter, 12 percent were afraid of police response, and 12 percent felt it was "not important enough."

There is a tone implicit in Ferrell and Ross' article that suggests that women who report being raped should not be believed. They use phrases like "actual victims", which implies that there are "fake" victims out there -- women who are just pretending to have been raped. They also say that, out of the 16 sexual offenses in 1999, 12 were "unconfirmed." This presumably means that the woman's report of rape is not "confirmation" enough that a crime has actually occurred.

It is always mystifying to try to understand why anyone would think a woman would lie about being raped. What, really, would she have to gain? When one considers that women who come forward are treated in this way, it is little wonder that so few do.

(Laura Sahramaa's column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily.)