Underreported Rape: The Failure of the Criminal Justice System
By Anabella Aspiras
Toward the end of first semester my junior year of high school, I witnessed the rapid decline of one of my dearest friends, Emma1. She became increasingly more withdrawn and despondent, which was unusual in a girl who — had we been seniors — would have been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” She steadily lost interest in the activities through which our friendship had developed, including concerts, the Free Tibet Club, and scoping out varsity basketball players. I became most aware that Emma was slipping away from me through our conversations, which had once been incessant and genuine but were increasingly just an exchange of my concerned questions and her monosyllabic responses.
After several weeks of watching helplessly as my friend drifted away, rumors began to surface at our small high school that Emma was using hard drugs. Feeling too estranged to talk to her, I decided not to ask Emma about the rumors, which I neither suspected nor believed. Much had changed about Emma, but I had never known her to take recreational drugs — and didn’t believe she was using drugs now. A few weeks later, our Homeroom teacher announced that Emma would be absent from school for the near future because she was attending a rehabilitation center for undisclosed reasons. Horrified and enraged, I went to Emma’s parent’s house and demanded to know what was happening to my friend. When her mother answered the door, I burst into tears, crying, “What happened? What happened to Emma?” Emma’s mother drew me into her arms and gently told me that Emma had given her permission to tell me this: “In the fall, Emma was raped when she was walking home from a party, and now she’s getting the help she needs.”
In the brief conversation that followed this earth-shattering disclosure, I also learned that Emma’s assault had not been, and was not going to be, reported to police. Her mother believed that nothing would come of reporting the rape, except more harm to Emma. I was too naïve to comprehend the reality of the situation then, and tragic truth behind her mother’s decision. I understood only that Emma’s rapist would go unpunished, and that, to my utter astonishment, her parents were not planning to take any legal action to prevent this outcome.
The reality of the situation — as I have learned through my work in women’s advocacy — is that Emma’s mother was essentially right. Of the roughly 39 percent of rapes that are reported to police in the United States each year, there is only a 16.3 percent chance that the rapist will be successfully prosecuted and end up in prison. If we include the number of rapes that occur in the United States each year and are not reported at all —61 percent — then only 6 percent of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.2
What is most alarming is that, despite such deplorable statistics, the U.S. appears to be at the forefront of rape response, currently holding the world record for annual number of rape convictions. In the United Kingdom, watchdog organizations have criticized police and prosecutors for failing to raise the rape conviction rate, which is (according to a 2007 study) a miserable five percent of reported rapes.3 In the developing world, rape is employed as a weapon of war, an instrument of law, and a punitive practice to subjugate women. Combatants and their sympathizers frequently rape civilians (a practice called “conflict rape”) with complete impunity in “unspeakable proportions.” 4 Only since the UN Security Council’s unanimous decision to classify rape as a weapon of war in June 2008 has conflict rape gained the attention it deserves. In the Muslim world, certain interpretations of Sharia (Islamic religious law) condone the rape of female family members as punishment for their male relatives’ disobediences. In Latin America, feminists argue that the ubiquitous practice of raping women who fight the status quo illustrates a machismo agenda to trap women in the traditional spheres of housekeeping and child-rearing. Regardless of place or mode, rape’s consequences are uniform: throughout the world, rape is strongly correlated to suicide, prostitution, substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS transmission.
In the United States, the underreporting of rape has been attributed to numerous factors, including perceptions of insensitivity on part of police authorities. There have been documented instances of police being unwilling to investigate instances of acquaintance rape (where the attacker is known to the survivor ) and same-sex sexual assaults.5 The practice of police prioritizing homicides over other crimes is, while understandable, another failure of the criminal justice system that further dissuades rape survivors from reporting their attacks. In addition, many rape survivors remain silent out of fear of exposing their private lives and sexual histories to hard-line police interrogation and/or the public scrutiny of the legal defense, should the case go to trial.
Another factor is the negligence in processing rape kits. In 2008, Human Rights Watch (HRW) presented a report exposing appalling carelessness in rape-kit processing — another police failure that undermines prosecution of rapists. Rape-kits establish the attacker’s DNA profile using fibers, fluids, and other evidence taken from the victim. They are used to corroborate the victim’s account of the attack and confirm the suspect’s identity by matching his DNA to the specimens obtained using the rape-kit. Despite the importance of collecting and analyzing these data, there is currently a backlog of approximately 1 million unprocessed rape-kits in police possession in the United States. While the lack of funding to process rape-kits is a major cause of this backlog, institutionalized police apathy for rape survivors also hampers rape-kit processing and investigations. HRW concluded that, even if the rape-kit backlog was eliminated, failures in the criminal justice system (including police prioritization of homicides and consequent unwillingness to investigate sex crimes) will persist. The end result is that, like Emma, too many women will believe — and rightly — that no justice will come from reporting their attack.
Since Emma went to rehab I have lost all contact with her. I will never know whether Emma benefited by staying silent about her attack — thereby becoming part of 61 percent of survivors who never see their rapist brought to justice — and being protected from the failures of the criminal justice system. I can imagine that any sense of closure was markedly absent from Emma’s recovery, and I cannot be sure that she has recovered, even now. From former classmates, I hear that, at 22, Emma still lives with her parents, and has taken four years to complete her Associate’s degree at the local community college — not for want of ability, but as a consequence of stolen ambition. Rape ruins more than a women’s sense of normalcy or ability to trust; it can destroy a woman’s life. The Emma I knew and loved in high school is gone. Until survivors of rape have reason to be confident in the criminal justice system, rape will continue to be underreported, and women’s lives, like Emma’s, will be lost.
Anabella Aspiras was a NWHN intern in Summer 2008. She will graduate in December 2008 from the University of Maryland with a B.A. in Government and International Politics and an academic concentration in Nursing Science. She plans to pursue an advanced degree in Nurse Midwifery, and focus her work in East Africa.
1. Name has been changed for privacy
2. “Reporting to Police,” Washington, DC: Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, 2008, page 2. Accessed July 16 2008 from www.rainn.org
3. BBC News, “UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said violence against women had reached "unspeakable proportions" in some societies recovering from conflict”, and BBC World News: Americas, “UN Classifies Rape a ‘War Tactic’”, June 20, 2008. Online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7464462.stm. Accessed July 22, 2008.
4. According to studies from the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 73 percent of rape survivors know their assailants. See www.rainn.org. Accessed July 17, 2008.
5. Toft, Sarah, “Rape-Kit Backlog in the United States: A HRW Roundtable Discussion”, Washington, D.C: Human Right Watch (HRW), June 26, 2008.