What do “Gone With The Wind,” “Doctor Zhivago,” and “Atonement” have in common? Yes, all three were best-selling books made into hit movies. But, although all three boast strong female characters, all three depict those women as the victims of ambiguous rapes. Ambiguity shrouds even the legal treatment of rape and, unlike other crimes, rape carries a lot of cultural and political baggage that clouds our ability to think about and deal with it.
In western society, the current perspective on the crime of rape is relatively modern. For a very long time, for example, marital rape was either not prosecuted as a crime or punished only under certain extreme circumstances.
The mores of times past deterred victims of rape from even reporting the crime, much less taking a witness stand to publicly accuse their assailants. Much has changed in the U.S. and world-wide but, sadly, too much remains the same.
In 2013, several horrific rape incidents in India, including one in which the victim died from injuries sustained in the assault, received international attention and outrage. India is not alone in this shameful epidemic: In South Africa, over 37 % of men surveyed in 2010 said that they had raped a woman. One in four men surveyed in 2013 in the Asia-Pacific region admitted to rape. Rape can be the product of misinformation as well as misogyny: Some men in South Africa and other countries even believe that sex with a virgin will cure HIV, which has led to sexual assaults of young girls and women.
Sex trafficking, which is a problem throughout the world, involves rape either at the outset (to “break the victim in”) and/or continuously, when the “worker” does not consent to sex work but is forced to do it. Men from developed countries travel as “sex tourists” to poorer nations where the young and the poor are forced into sex slavery.
The stigma faced by victims who report rape persists. In some countries, such as Afghanistan, rape victims are forced to marry their assailants or are even jailed. In the U.S., victims face cyber- or other types of bullying, as well as hostile treatment during trial and from their communities.
In Steubenville, Ohio, two high school football players were convicted in March 2013 of raping and otherwise assaulting a very intoxicated 16-year-old girl who had attended parties that the two boys also attended. One of the boys also posted video and photographs of the girl, including some images in which she was naked or partially clothed. During grand jury testimony, the victim said that she had been too drunk to remember much of what had happened to her. Many adults in the town refused to cooperate with investigators and some activists have decried a culture that values high school football over the security of a vulnerable teenage girl.
The legal and social status of women is intimately tied to the way rape is viewed in every country. This is because women in the west and in many countries were historically viewed as less than fully human, as “property” of their fathers or husbands, or as legal incompetents who could not bear witness against others. This has changed dramatically in the last hundred years, but the effects of this gender apartheid linger to greater and lesser degrees everywhere.
Because societies developed with this pernicious bigotry, its effect is also felt during the greatest of societal upheavals, such as war. Rape is a rampant war crime, methodically, brutally, and tactically used by combatants to punish and subdue the “enemy” culture.
Even societies at peace fail to prosecute rape as vigorously as is warranted. India presents a particularly stark example of this. Of the over 600 rape cases reported in that country in 2012, prosecutors managed to secure only a single conviction. But, western countries do not shine by example: In April 2013, a 17-year-old Nova Scotia girl committed suicide after she was gang raped by four local boys and then subjected to cyber-bullying when a digital photo of the incident made the rounds at her school. Police declined to press rape charges in the case after a year-long investigation. Following an international public outcry, authorities charged two young men with distributing child pornography for their role in taking and posting the digital photograph of the victim.
Politicians to this day perpetuate the myth that rape victims must be subjected to heightened scrutiny. In August 2012, Representative Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, responded to a reporter’s question about whether abortion was a valid option for a woman impregnated by rape by saying that, “if it’s legitimate rape,” pregnancy is “really rare.”
There is no question but that the legal, social, and cultural status of women and girls has improved dramatically in virtually every country in the world in the last few decades. In recent years, social media has provided a platform for victims, victim advocates, women’s rights organizations, social justice activists, and others to bring abuses to light and to demand governmental action. Social media can enhance efforts to educate girls, boys, women, and men on gender equality, issues of consent, and the right of all to dignity and physical safety. There is reason to hope for further advancement of the right of women and girls to be safe from rape.
We can all step in when a situation seems dangerous, such as when a woman appears too intoxicated to take care of herself. And, there are larger-scale efforts to join. For example, the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict is one way to get involved in efforts to end rape in conflict zones. There are organizations around the country active in preventing and addressing stranger rape, “date” rape,” and assaults on school campuses.