Much has been said about the rape culture that exists in today’s society, without a full definition of what rape culture is. To many, it refers to the general acceptance of trivializing sexual violence, from the popular use of rape as a term of competitive jest (for example, “I totally raped that exam,”) or the negations of the definition of rape, as in the example of Todd Akin’s ‘legitimate rape’ quote.
A less discussed aspect of rape culture, however, is the accepted response to the crime itself. In an essay on The Huffington Post, Amherst student Angie Epfiano, who went public with the story of her own rape, commented on the inability of victims to speak about their experiences.
“When you look at it, sexual assault and rape are basically the only violent crimes that when you talk about it, people close off.” She went on to explain, “If you were mugged in New York City people would be horrified. No one is going to sit there and say ‘Are you sure you were mugged?’ With sexual assault there is always this question of ‘Are you sure? What were you wearing?’”
In addition to trivialization and political naysaying, the tendency to disbelieve victims is devastating to rape survivors and contributes to the problem of rape itself. This is particularly harmful within law enforcement, when victims attempt to seek justice. Reporting rape can be a traumatic experience in and of itself; reliving the experience and undergoing invasive testing only to have doubting law officers and a lack of results can do far more harm than good, which only contributes to the cycle of silent victimhood, making this crime so devastating.
Discussions about this topic have often been greeted with fury and indignation, attributed to a lack of concern on the part of law enforcement, or a symptom of a wider trend of apathy towards rape victims. This may be part of the problem, but a recent article by Slate largely demystifies the problem and offers a ray of hope for victims.
Tom Tremblay, who worked in law enforcement, also noticed the tendency of his co-workers to disbelieve rape allegations. Yet this was not because of an inherent lack of concern but rather because the nature of a rape victim’s recollections are completely at odds with traditional methods of gathering evidence.
Victims often do not remember details sequentially or clearly. As a result of the intensity of the trauma, their stories will often change with time and can be fractured or out of order. With other crimes, such as robberies or assaults, victims can give clear descriptions and time frames. Rape victims are often initially incapable of this, but are instead able to recall select details, which may have little to do with the crime itself. Officers will often interrogate and press victims to remember timelines, details and sequences, which under normal circumstances, is integral to good police work. This approach, however, is not only futile in the case of rape, as it can bring about false memories and false information, but it can also damage the victims themselves, if they believe they are being doubted.
Tremblay, along with a psychologist and consultant, David Lisak, have started to retrain officers to better understand and work within the limitations of survivors of sexual crimes. As they describe in Slate:
“This means asking questions about what she smelled, felt, or heard as a way of delicately gathering evidence that may corroborate her account. If, for example, she correctly identifies the rapist’s cologne…that’s a sign she can provide accurate recollections.”
In the Slate-article, Tremblay describes a case in which the victim, when asked about sounds, recalled hearing the assailant walking in her apartment. That in turn triggered a memory of him talking on the phone to a car mechanic, and the victim remembered enough details of the conversation to allow the police to find the mechanic.
Tremblay and Lisak’s important work is a first step in changing rape culture. It shows that some of the practices within our society that we may believe unchangeable or unfair have simpler, structural sources. This, though a simple change, offers significant hope for survivors and the change of higher rates of prosecution for sexual offenders.