Putting a Band-Aid on rape won't work

When Jesse Sommer, a New Scotland native, called our newsroom last month, we chatted about his military career: As a captain in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, he works as a lawyer for the newly established Special Victims’ Council program, providing legal support to survivors of rape and sexual assault.

We’d read a lot about the large number of rapes in the military — 26,000, estimated in the Pentagon’s 2012 survey with just 3,374 reported and only a fraction of those proceeding to trial.

Sommer said that maybe he’d been drinking the Kool-Aid but he believed that, just as the military was a leader in integration, it is now leading in another important social issue, dealing with sexual assault.

Our reporter Anne Hayden Harwood conducted an in-depth interview with Sommer, which ran on our front page last week, and this week we’ve taken a close look at some of the statistics on sexual assault in our society, inside and outside of the military.

We also combed through 25 years of our own local news stories and editorials on sexual assault.

The good news should be that, in that time, nationwide data from the United States Bureau of Justice shows a steady decline in the number of rapes per 1,000 people — from 2.3 to 0.5. Large numbers of rapes are unreported and there is much debate over what the real numbers are.

As Lauren R. Taylor writes in the National Institute of Justice Journal, “During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, transformations were taking place in the way Americans defined and responded to rape. Social and political movements — along with changes in the law — encouraged women to inform police about sex crimes. Academics, victim service providers, law enforcement officers, and others continue to debate how these shifts affected perceptions of women, rape, and sexual behavior.”

In January, the White House Council on Women and Girls released its “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.” The vast majority of the victims are women just as the vast majority of perpetrators, nearly 98 percent, are men, the report says. It also says most victims know their assailants and some groups are more targeted than others.

The report takes a close look at campus sexual assault, stating 1 in 5 women — 20 percent — has been sexually assaulted while she’s in college.

Prison is another problem area with 14 percent of females in state prison and 4 percent of males sexually assaulted by another prisoner. The rates are the worst for incarcerated gay men, at 34 percent, and bisexual men, at 39 percent, compared to 3.5 percent of incarcerated heterosexual males.

One of the report’s saddest statements is on the criminal justice response: “Despite the prevalence of rape and sexual assault, many offenders are neither arrested nor prosecuted.”

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, about 12 percent of the 283,200 annual rapes or sexual assaults between 2005 and 2010 resulted in an arrest. So the military is not alone.

The report cites causes as complex as police bias and as simple as a shortage of rape kits or a backlog in testing them; the kits collect forensic evidence including the perpetrator’s DNA and can be vital to successful prosecution. One study cited by the report found that two-thirds of survivors have had their legal cases dismissed, and more than 80 percent of the time, this contradicted her desire to prosecute.

The council’s report also looks at economic costs — for medical and victim services, loss of productivity, decreased quality of life, and law enforcement — which, depending on the methodology, range from $87,000 to $240,776 per rape.

The costs in human suffering can’t be counted. The physical and mental toll can last a lifetime. Looking through decades of our own local stories and editorials on this subject, we can feel the pain as we read the searing words of the women who call themselves survivors. The story is not just the numbers, spread across the country; it is the pain, right here in our midst.

We wrote about Susan, who, at 51, told us how for decades she had kept the secret of her rape to herself. She was alone. She didn’t press charges. She didn’t talk about the rape. She blamed herself.

When Susan was raped, there were no crisis hotlines to call; there were no specially trained police officers or hospital staff to calm her fears and successfully gather evidence; there were no legal programs set up to offer guidance and representation.

Many of those are aids listed in the council’s report and we have advocated for them over the years, for example, fighting to preserve, in the face of budget cuts, the county’s center that helps victims of sexual assault.

But what stood out for us this week as we delved into the council’s report was how institutions where people live in close proximity without the dominant social influence of family life —colleges, prisons, and the military — seem immune to progress being made by the society at large. They are all institutions that have typically stonewalled over or hidden transgressions.

The council’s report cites the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to report crime on or near their campuses, to develop and disseminate prevention policies, and to ensure victims their basic rights.

We wrote in 2004 about a rape on the University at Albany campus that was handled in sharp contrast to a rape that same spring in nearby Woodlake Apartments. The Guilderland Police acted responsibly, and immediately released the information about the Woodlake rape to the press, which both alerted residents to danger and increased the chances of catching the suspect.

The university, on the other hand, refused to release information. We wrote then that rape was, tragically, prevalent on college campuses and quoted Bureau of Justice statistics from a 2000 report on the sexual victimization of college women, which stated, “There may well be 35 incidents of rape in a given academic year (based on victimization rate of 35.3 per 1,000 college women). For a campus with 10,000 women, this would mean the number of rapes could exceed 350.”

Bureau of Justice statistics at the time also showed that nearly half of college women who were victims of attacks that met the study’s definition of rape did not consider what happened to them rape.

Ten years later, there’s been little, if any, progress.

“If a woman takes that difficult step and reports an incident only to have it shrouded in silence, what then?” we asked. “There’s less chance of catching the suspect and there’s a greater chance she’ll feel marginalized and stigmatized.”

We urge now what we urged then: “The university should launch a campaign — and we, in the community, should be part of it — to educate students about the prevalence of rape and the need to report it.”

For prisons, the White House Council cites the Prison Rape Elimination Act and a final rule released in 2012 requiring prisons and other detention facilities to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual assault. This is the first federal effort to set standards for all prisons at the local, state, and federal levels, and is long overdue. Facilities are to make sure that at-risk groups, including youth, women, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are protected.

Our Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibits the use of cruel or unusual punishment and prison rape is surely that.

For the military, the White House Council cites the new program, calling it a “landmark reform,” to provide legal counsel for all victims of sexual assault, of which Captain Jesse Sommer is a part. The rank and file pushed for that change, some at great personal expense, and they need to keep pushing; the rest of us need to join them.

“You simply can’t worry that the person with whom you share the trenches is going to attack you,” said Sommer. Good point.

But, while we commend the effort to provide rape survivors with their own counsel, how effective is it? We still share Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s concerns that those victimized by rape may well not trust their commanders to handle accusations the right way; we’d back her narrowly defeated bill for independent military prosecutors if it came up again.

A sea change is needed.

In no other crime does a victim feel shame. The she-asked-for-it mentality puts blame and restrictions on women —  they are told not to dress suggestively or not to walk alone at night — that are undeserved. Many feel like they were to blame.

We are reminded of a story about Golda Meir when she was prime minister of Israel and her cabinet advised a curfew for women to protect them from rape; she responded that, since the men were doing the raping, they were the ones that should be off the streets at night.

The White House Council’s report states, “Social norms research reveals that men often overestimate other men’s acceptance of abusive behavior towards women and underestimate other men’s willingness to intervene when a woman is in trouble.”

The report goes on to state, “When men and boys believe that their peers accept sexist and abusive behavior, they are much less likely to help. That, in turn, can lead perpetrators to think their actions are acceptable — which, of course, perpetuates the violence.”

The report lists programs — the Centers for Disease Control Rape Prevention and Education program and the Department of Justice Engaging Men in Preventing Assault and Domestic Violence program — that work to develop male leaders willing to speak up about violence against women and girls.

We need a transformation into something rich and strange: In our universities, in our prisons, in our armies, individuals matter and can make a difference. Certainly, these crimes must be reported, arrests made, and prosecutions followed through.

The men and women being raped must not bear the shame that belongs to the rapists. Rape can be prevented in the first place if individuals speak up and intervene to stem the violence. Further, we each need to add our voice to those of the survivors and activists calling for changes. It is time to be open and exacting about the problems to solve them.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

More Editorials

Planning boards are a good and necessary part of town government.

Before he hanged himself in his jail cell, Adam Rappaport doodled on prison stationery, lightly penciling in one corner, in small capital letters next to a six-point star the word "hope" — only this and nothing more.

Learning about our culture, and teaching our youth their history, can help them to not only understand the past but shape a more humane society.