September 11, 2011

Brick wall blocking progress on sexual violence

Forty years after the women’s rights movement brought attention to the widespread nature of sexual violence, the overwhelming majority of offenses still go unreported. Even when a brave victim does come forward, prosecution is rare and conviction even rarer.

That unpleasant reality was the starting point for this week's international conference on sexual violence at Middlesex University in London. Delegates from around the world -- including from Europe, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States -- met to brainstorm next steps in the battle against this catastrophic pandemic.

The consensus among delegates seemed to be that the legal system -- despite the best of intentions of many within it -- is ill equipped to rectify the "justice gap" between sexual violence perpetrators and their victims.

The "brick wall" (in the words of criminologist Betsy Stanko of "the Met," London's Metropolitan Police) blocking progress is built of so-called "rape myths" that make women unwilling to come forward, and impede successful prosecution when they do.

Myth Number One is that only bad and/or crazy men rape. As I explored in my opening keynote address, the promotion of this fiction by a powerful sex offender treatment industry has had the paradoxical effect of making the everyday rapist and child molester even less recognizable than ever by jurors and judges.

Myth Number Two is that men cannot control their sexual impulses. The corollary of this is to blame women for rape: Why did she get drunk? Why did she go with him? Why did she act (or dress) that way? Women have internalized these messages and so - unlike, say, burglary victims -- feel deeply humiliated and ashamed when they are raped.

Conference organizers Jackie Gray, Miranda Horvath,
and Susan Hansen (Photo credit: The Times)

These myths are so universal in Western cultures that even feminist women working at a women's health clinic communicate them in private, informal conversation, according to new research by one of the conference's organizers, Susan Hansen of Middlesex University. (The other two organizers were Miranda Horvath and Jackie Gray.)

Compounding the problem is the fact that rapists tend to target vulnerable women who do not fit the profile of a virtuous victim, so do not make good witnesses. In the "vast majority" of London cases tracked by the Met, around 85 percent, victims were (1) seriously intoxicated at the time of their assault, (2) involved in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator, (3) mentally ill, and/or (4) minors, Stanko reported. These are not ideal victims, from the standpoint of successful prosecution.

What to do?

As noted by long-time activist Liz Kelly, chair of the Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit of London Metropolitan University, sexual violence exists on a continuum, from predatory leers, touches and verbal harassment -- to which virtually all women are subjected -- on up to illegal sexual assault. Direct confrontation of the male entitlement undergirding this entire spectrum of behaviors will be critical to meaningful progress against sexual violence, speaker after speaker emphasized.

In other words, delegates argued for reintroducing gender into the professional discourse. As Moira Carmody of the University of Western Sydney in Australia pointed out, gender-based analysis of sexual victimization is often perceived as too threatening. So it is replaced with gender-neutral discourse about interpersonal conflict, in which the gender of perpetrator and victim become interchangeable.

I had witnessed this dynamic in action the previous day, at the international consortium on multiple-perpetrator rape. As so frequently occurs in these types of professional gatherings, someone brought up the topic of female perpetrators, sidetracking discussion onto this tangential topic. I say tangential, because the reality is that group rape is an overwhelmingly male activity. Even on the exceedingly rare occasions in which women or girls are present, they are almost always auxiliaries, for example the wife of a sexual deviant, or a female gang member pressured to help her boyfriend procure a victim.

In addition to addressing the gender hierarchies and other power imbalances that facilitate victimization, we need to empower young people so that they perceive of themselves as active agents who have choices and practical tools for negotiating complex social situations.

Stieg Larsson, the author of the popular Millennium trilogy, did not feel this power when he was 15 years old. Thus, he did not intervene during a group camping trip, as three of his friends raped a 15-year-old girl. "Her screams were heartrending, but … his loyalty to his friends was too strong," writes longtime friend and biographer Kurdo Baksi. "He was too young, too insecure." Larsson struggled with guilt for the rest of his life, even naming the heroine of his novels after the rape victim, Lisbeth.

To empower young people in these types of situations, Carmody has developed an educational program that trains participants both in how to behave ethically in their own sexual encounters, and how to be "ethical bystanders." The curriculum, funded by the Australian government, has been successfully introduced with boys, girls, men and women from a variety of backgrounds, from rugby players to Maoris in New Zealand to gay men and lesbians.

New Zealand is using this ethical bystander approach in an innovative public health campaign to combat an expected rise in sexual assaults during the Rugby World Cup. An eight-minute video, "whoareyou," pushes the idea that everyone is responsibility for the safety of those around them.

A first step in primary prevention, then, is teaching and training young people to behave ethically toward each other.

On a larger level, we will need to directly challenge the rape myths undergirding an entire spectrum of intimate intrusions by men and boys against those with less social currency. Only then will victims feel empowered to step forward, and will judges and jurors be able to recognize and condemn the everyday offender who stands before them.

Knocking down that brick wall will be no small task.


Cavall de Quer said...

Great to have your report on this, Karen, many thanks.
I had a small reservation about the video, being reminded of the research on "just saying no" in date rape situations, by Kitzinger & Frith: I couldn't identify with the interventions shown by the various participants in the video situation (not that at 60 I really need to!): nothing, surely, is more difficult than to get people to step up to bat in social situations? Well, no doubt the rest of the programme reveals all....

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Hi Cavall de Quer,
I understand what you are saying about the "just say no" campaign, but that was critiqued for putting the onus for rape prevention onto the victim (as does the women's self defense approach). Here, both men and women are being approached as potential allies in the battle against rape. The idea is to give people intervention tools so they don't just stand by helplessly when they see a situation that makes them uncomfortable. Who knows if it will work....

ACH said...

The "problem" creating this brick wall is that many victims of sexual assault aren't heartless ideologues. As stated above, often the victim is "in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator," which means that they very likely care about them and don't want them to go to prison, and then spend decades on a public sex offender registry. Perhaps they don't want to go through the grueling process of the way the legal system treats complaintants in rape cases. Maybe the real predators are those who think that the "solution" is to make convictions easier by eroding the rights of the accused.

Maybe rather than trying to destroy the "brick wall" of the rights of the accused and victims caring about intimates, friends, and family members--including one who have done bad things to them--maybe the solution is to realize that "punish more! get more convictions! lock up more people!" is NOT the solution.

Perhaps we need to get a clue, realize that "he said/she said" should generally NOT be considered "beyond a reasonable doubt," and realize that the obvious implication is that peer-counseling, working with mental health professionals, and civil law need to be looked to for answers.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

ACH, Your post is an example of the unfortunate polarization created by U.S. sex offender policy. This was an international conference, focusing on primary and secondary prevention. Globally, sexual violence against women and children is producing catastrophic damage. Certainly, many of the U.S. responses to sex offending are misguided and have paradoxical, harmful effects. But the harm of sexual violence, mainly to women and children, should not be trivialized. We don’t need further decriminalization of a crime that is already typically penalty-free, given the tiny proportion of sexual assaults that are reported, prosecuted, and end up in convictions. Many crimes rely on witnesses for corroboration. Armed or strong-arm robbery is often a “he said/he said” crime, but no one would argue against criminal prosecution for robbers.

Cavall de Quer said...

And now I'm reminded of another attempt to get people to be "ethical bystanders":
Luke 10:25-37........It seems to be a perennial problem, despite all the studies: this one must be one of the earliest. ;)

ACH said...

I'll admit that my post has a US-centric bias. I'm not sure it's fair to say that it's a result of polarization, although perhaps a result of one of the causes of it. I certainly agree that sexual assault is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with. However (at least in a US context) much of the standard "feminist" rhetoric I find increasingly horrifying, not to mention self-contradictory. (Rape isn't about sex, it's about power [because sex isn't about power in what imaginary world?]. Rapists are manipulative predators [and you can become one by accident if you misinterpret someone's nonverbal communication]. Women virtually never lie about rape [according to a study that no one can find], so let's have "rape shield laws" to further abrogate the rights of the accused, increase the number of people in our massively over-crowded prisons (and increase incidence of rape in them), including more innocent men, along with guilty ones. And while women never lie about rape, the collary we must accept is that men lie about rape all the time.

I would be in favor of more educational approaches to prevention, but too many of the people doing the "education" are too scary, and their constant reinforcing the idea of male sexuality as predatory (which your post does quite a bit of) created a fair amount of internalized misandry for me that took a while to get rid of, and no doubt it does for many others. There are simply too many people (strongly opposed to rape) who (justifiably) find much of the anti-rape rhetoric horrifying.

Perhaps a good example of the amount of ideology overriding sane thinking is seen in "myth #2" and the following section. Because we--justifiably--do not want to "blame the victim," we have gone overboard to the point that it is uncool to admit that (especially in a case where there is an established relationship), there could be a relationship dynamic at work, with both people doing things that contributed to the situation, or that the woman could have been engaging in some sort of risky behavior. And if "even feminist women working at a women's health clinic communicate [something that someone can construe as a rape myth] in private," it's probably because they know that the ideology prevents them from saying it in public, but this doesn't negate the fact that reality is pretty much always more complex that activists' soundbytes would have us believe.

Anonymous said...

("Even when a brave victim does come forward, prosecution is rare and conviction even rarer.") Over 750,000 convictions, then placed on a national list with a completely destroyed life once released, is that just a drop in he bucket?

(" Ethical bystander approach?") Again a blatant demonstration that women are truly helpless. They can not defend them self's and a deviant sexual predator is lurking at every turn for today's women. young and old. Just wait until that good Samaritan steps in the middle of a little spat between boy friend and girl friend. Between wife and husband. Between mother and son. The deaths that can and will result is what? Just more collateral damage? It will be "OK" because the majority of good Samaritans will be men.

("Everyone is responsibility for the safety of those around them?") You mean everyone is responsibility for the safety of all WOMEN around them. All men are "potential" rapist and all women are "potential" victims. As soon as you can train males to think that way. Delegates from around the world are brainstorming those steps right now.

How about your blogs on eyewitness identification? Male or female. You think a puke faced, drug head has the story straight when you get your dial a snitch, burn a buddy, report any thing and everything campaign up and running?

I've been a fan of your blogs. Fair and balanced. I'm sorry Dr. Franklin. IMO, this blog reads like radical feminism.

Rhia said...

Another issue blocking progress may just be the fact that the focus, even in this blog post, is on men only. With between 20-25% of child sexual abuse being perpetrated by women I would think we would want to move towards treating this as an issue that involves people not just one gender.

In the Congo one study found Women reported to have perpetrated conflict-related sexual violence in 41.1% of female cases and 10.0% of male cases.

As the authors of that study told the US Africa Command in January 2011:

These statistics challenge the paradigm of male perpetrator and female victim, and also highlight the importance of improving prevention and response programs and medical care to address men and boys, in addition to women and girls.

Lawry and Wagner explained that sex and gender based violence in the DRC is not just “violence against women” and programs that focus only on male perpetrators and female victims are addressing only half of the problem. Adding to the complexity of the problem is the fact that many of the perpetrators were once victims themselves.

researcherone said...

You speak of the international conference on sexual violence at Middlesex University in London. I am wondering about another source of possible conflict: The various ages of consent throughout the world.

Are the "minors" to which you refer in the article only those who are forcibly raped (i.e. non-consent) or minors in general? First, what is meant by "minor" in the context of this conference? As far as sexual activity goes, that definition will likely be different in every country, and that aspect alone is likely to generate some confusion as far as an alleged crime (as perceived) in a country where someone over the age of 18 (or 21) legally has consensual sex with someone under 18 but within the legal age of consent in that country. Actual forcible rape is universally a problem, but how is statutory rape handled in the various countries, like those of Europe where 14 is the predominant age of consent?

The above inquiry is presented in light of Richard Green's statement and that of ILGA Europe 2001:

. . . in Austria, as in the majority of European countries, heterosexual and lesbian relations between adults and consenting adolescents over fourteen years of age are not punishable. They submit that there is nothing to indicate that adolescents need more protection against consensual homosexual relations with adults than against such heterosexual or lesbian relations. While not being necessary for protecting male adolescents in general, section 209 of the Criminal Code hampers homosexual adolescents in their development by attaching a social stigma to their relations with adult men and to their sexual orientation in general.

As indicated at the end of the excerpt, this statement was made in light of a young man of 17 who pleaded to a court for justice because he had had an ongoing consensual relationship with a man over 18. The legal violation was not that he was under the age of 18, but that his relationship was of a homosexual nature. Apparently, SVP cases in some parts of the world are not only male-female forcible rape, but those that are homosexual in nature.

Unknown said...

I believe there is much wisdom and prudence associated with efforts to offer all women particularly those who have already been sexually victimized---practical and effective self-defense.

Sadly women in our culture have been taught to submit to attackers and even will confess they did not want to appear impolite by fighting back against an attacker.

Women need to have access to self-defense programs that have been developed specifically for women. As an example, Loren Christensen ( and his wife Lisa Place just released their book covering self-defense for women.

Though not commonly included in services provided to victims I believe all would be well-served to examine the proposal---open invitation to all interested women. It makes sense that leaders would do well to research the matter and launch a campaign to heighten public awareness of the role women's self-defense can play in healing from their traumas and preventing them from being targeted on the front end.

Admittedly, I am not an expert on rape or programs for victims. That said, sometimes people from outside the "main frame" can add something of value.

I will welcome all information about the way such self-defense classes are viewed, frequency of use, and general attitude toward their value. Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of a passer-by and admittedly am just beginning to explore the topic of sexual assault, so I'm certainly open to correction from those who understand this subject better than I do. I wanted to ask: Isn't there a distinction between blaming the victim, and encouraging individuals to take responsibility for the kinds of situations in which they put themselves? For example, if I were the father of a daughter, I might discourage my daughter from going to a place I know might be dangerous for her, like a sorority that I know goes to parties hosted by the football team, not because I think it is OK for a football player to assault a drunk girl, but because I face the fact that it is, unfortunately, a reality that football players sometimes assault drunk girls. And then if she were to go to such a party against my wishes and there be assaulted, I would support her wholeheartedly in prosecuting the assailant, because I do agree there is no excuse for rape. At the same time, I don't think it was the best decision for her to go there.

It seems to me that the truth almost always lies somewhere in the middle. When I read your article it left me wondering if you leave room to admit that while on the one hand we do not justify rape under any circumstances, because of course we expect individuals to be accountable for their actions, we also do not encourage people to place themselves in positions in which untrustworthy persons might harm them. And of course the third arm to the discussion is that while we make room for both these points, we continue working on facing the causes of rape in our country.

Tangentially, I want to ask if you have any opinion you would like to share on the increasingly sexualized appearance of women in general and especially young women. I'm referring to low-cut clothing, short skirts, spandex, etc., especially among high school and college-aged girls. I'm talking about a presentation that is overtly sexual, designed to show 'sex appeal'. Have you observed this as well and if so why do you think this is happening? I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons young women are dressing like this more frequently is just to prove that they can. I think this development (the style of dress) is unfortunate for a number of reasons, but the connection to the present discussion is that I think it is just not wise to encourage an environment in which sexuality is continually triggered. For one thing, it's not fair to boys or young men, a point that IMO gets short shrift because we don't seem to want to acknowledge the way male sexuality works. For another, we come back to the point of acknowledging that danger exists, while rejecting any excuse for wrongdoing. I know they say rape is about power and not sex but I always wondered why sex is chosen as the vehicle for power by rapists, if sex is not partly what they want. In short, an environment in which there are potential rapists, and where sexuality is becoming an increasingly salient characteristic of same. Someone doesn't rape because of the way his victim dresses, he rapes because he chooses to rape; but are we not ignoring a pretty obvious element of the situation if we hypothesize that a relatively sexualized environment will have no bearing whatever on the incidence of rape? I wanted to hear what you have to say on this question.

Thanks for your time.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...


Thanks for posting a comment.

The sexualization of girls is addressed in a task force report by the American Psychological Association that is available online. Such objectification, which turns people into commodities for the consumption of others, is a complex phenomenon, driven by the advertising industry, TVs, movies, and other cultural agents. According to the task force report, sexualization has tremendously negative effects on girls and young women, including on their physical and mental health, sexuality, and even on cognitive functioning.

However, I am not aware of any research evidence to suggest that a girl's attire is correlated with her likelihood of being sexually victimized. (In fact, sexual assault rates appear to be declining sharply, even as this sexualization is taking place in Western culture.) To suggest that because our culture is forcing girls to become sexualized at younger and younger ages, they are somehow responsible for their sexual victimization is very dangerous. The boys-will-be-boys view of sexual violence demeans not only girls and women, but also boys and men, by suggesting that rape is an inherent component of male sexuality. It is not. Rape is an intentional behavior. It is often planned in advance, with alcohol the primary weapon used against naïve young women.

Furthermore, as one can see in the media imagery of Justin Bieber, boys in our culture are also being sexualized. (Sociological Images has more on this phenomenon.) Would we suggest that a boy who goes shirtless or wears tight pants to a college party is asking to be raped? I very much doubt it. The threat of rape is a time-honored method of keeping women "in their place."

red_horizon0127 said...

Thanks for your response, Dr. Franklin, and for the helpful links you provided as well. Unfortunately I suppose it does not go without saying in our society, but I agree with you 100% that there is never an excuse for rape.

Do you happen to know whether the incidence of rape is increasing or decreasing in high schools and college campuses? As a recent college grad and having as a friend a photographer who takes pictures for local high schools, I'm aware that these are some of the places where styles of dress are most - er, revealing, let's just say.

Thanks again! I just came across your blog the other day, the quality of research and analysis that are brought to bear upon your writing is fantastic.

- David

Anonymous said...

Women leaning self defense is only a reaction to our current, global rape culture. Wouldn't it be much better if women didn't have to consider spending their time and money learning how to protect themselves from rapists? If all we do is support reactionary measures to this systemic problem, we miss a critical opportunity to call for changes where it would count; making changes this culture that supports rape. By making self-defense classes THE way to prevent rape, we'll only cement the ongoing need for women's self-defense classes.