Here are some places where forms of rape are legal: Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Oman...and North Carolina. Yes, you heard me correctly. North Carolina made the list. According to Forbes, North Carolina legalized rape earlier this year by prohibiting victims from withdrawing consent during sex. As a rape survivor who reported to the police, I have special insight into the experiences of rape victims and the legal system. What has become apparent to me and those who’ve been keeping up with celebrity sexual assault allegations, rape runs rampant in the United States. According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been raped or nearly raped in the United States. To make matters worse, the United States legal system augments the prevalence of rape by silencing victims and protecting rapists. Although the legal system exhibits manifold faults in regards to the treatment of rape cases, there are numerous solutions within reach–solutions which us youth must bring into fruition through education, protest, and advocation.
In order to effectively push for solutions, we must first educate ourselves about the various ways in which the legal system exacerbates rape culture and disadvantages rape victims. Problem #1: victim-blaming is common during victim questioning and case investigation. The Department of Justice has deemed police departments and county attorney’s offices across the country to be breeding grounds for victim-blaming and victim maltreatment. In Maryland, the Baltimore Police Department doubted victims’ honesty and posed questions aimed at making victims feel guilty, according to a report published by the Department of Justice in 2016. Detectives at the department were known to ask questions like “Why are you messing up that guy’s life?” In Montana, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office employed individuals who were unknowledgeable about rape and who targeted female victims. A 2014 letter sent to the Missoula County Attorney’s Office by the Department of Justice included findings such as “Adult women victims, particularly victims of non-stranger sexual assault and rape, are often treated with disrespect...and re-victimized by the process.” By mistreating victims, personnel implied that women who had been raped by people they knew had been “asking for it.” This high prevalence of victim-blaming occurred in an environment where personnel were uneducated about sexual assault. According to the Department of Justice’s letter, county attorneys lacked the “basic knowledge and training about sexual assault necessary to effectively and impartially investigate and prosecute...cases.” Note that the Department of Justice employed the term “impartially” to communicate the fact that personnel were biased against sexual assault victims. Victim-blaming, which evidently reared its ugly head in Baltimore and Missoula, only serves to silence rape victims. Victim-blaming on behalf of police officers, detectives, and other personnel decreases the number of victims who are willing and able to share their stories. A study entitled “The Impact of Detectives’ Manner of Questioning on Rape Victims’ Disclosure” found that victims have more difficulty opening up and remembering the specifics of their rapes when detectives are cold and pose accusatory questions. For reasons such as victim-blaming in the legal process, only 1 out of every 3 rapes are reported–a staggering statistic which comes from the New York Times.
Problem #2: rape cases are difficult to win. There are many ways in which the legal system stacks the odds against rape victims during sexual assault trials. One such method of sabotage is the assignment of biased individuals to jury duty. Just like law enforcement officials, jurors are biased against sexual assault victims as a result of rape culture–a toxic environment characterized by victim blaming, misconceptions about rape, and female objectification. A study published in the Albany Law Review concluded that “exposure to rape culture increases the likelihood that jurors will endorse rape myths and view women as sex objects and, in turn, attend...to denials and justifications put forth by alleged perpetrators, while simultaneously ignoring contradictory evidence.” The negative biases internalized by jury members ultimately “translate into...wrongful acquittals.” This jury bias contributes to the unlikelihood of verdicts favoring rape victims. The chances of a victim winning a rape case are slim to the point of near non-existence. According to RAINN’s most recent statistics, only 0.007% of rapes result in felony convictions and even less lead to incarceration.
Problem #3: rapists are able to gain parental rights. A 2016 CNN article entitled “Where rapists can gain parental rights” publicized this glaring defect in the legal system, issuing shocking statistics. 7 states fully allow rapists to gain custody of children conceived during rape. These states are Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Maryland, and yes, Minnesota. Although 43 states have laws which enable victims to bar their rapists from possessing custody, perpetrators must be convicted of rape to be denied parental rights in twenty of those states. Since the vast majority of rapes don’t lead to criminal convictions, gaining custody is feasible for rapists in these twenty states as well. Not only is possessing parental rights feasible, but it has become a reality for countless rapists. In October, the New York Post reported that “a convicted sex offender who raped a Michigan woman when she was only 12 years old [had been] granted joint custody of his victim’s 8-year-old son.” The circumstances of the 2006 rape were horrifying. The sex offender kidnapped the victim and the victim’s friend and then two days later brought the children to a park where he raped one child and let the other one go. The victim somehow found the strength to continue living and keep the baby that she conceived through rape. Now imagine how this survivor felt when, after raising her child alone for 8 years, the courts suddenly forced her to share her child with the very man who raped her. As if the events surrounding the victim’s rape weren’t traumatizing enough, the victim must now confront her painful past on a regular basis. She has to face her rapist every time he comes to pick up her child–an exchange which jeopardizes her safety–and spend the duration of the child’s absence worrying about whether or not her little boy is being harmed or being taught violence and misogyny. Most of all, she must relinquish the power she has spent nearly a decade trying to reclaim. Stories like this demonstrate the necessity of anti-custody laws in the United States.
Problem #4: there are statutes of limitations for rape charges. FindLaw defines a statute of limitations as a time restriction placed on criminal charges; essentially, statutes of limitations determine the amount of time a victim can wait before bringing his or her case to court. In an ideal world, rape victims would be given unlimited time to press charges; after all, victims of rape need more time to prepare themselves for reporting than victims of other crimes. Safety-concerns, knowing the perpetrator, and shame in conjunction with a biased legal system prevent the majority of victims from reporting in a timely manner or reporting at all. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal world. Numerous states have placed extremely small caps on the number of years a victim has to press charges. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, the statute of limitations for rape prosecutions is 4 years in Florida, 5 years in Connecticut, and 6 years in states such as Arkansas, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Hawaii–the list goes on. Statutes of limitations for rape charges combined with barriers to reporting inhibit countless victims from bringing their perpetrators to justice.
Now that we’ve identified some of the legal-system flaws which exacerbate rape culture and disadvantage rape victims, let’s discuss potential solutions. Solution #1: subject detectives and police officers to mandatory rape-response and PTSD-response training courses in order to encourage more rape victims to report their experiences and report their experiences fully. The transformation of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office from national failure to success story demonstrates the positive impact that sexual violence response training for detectives has on rape reporting. The Department of Justice’s appalling findings prompted the Missoula County Attorney’s Office to require “extensive specialized training for first responders and detectives in the response to sexual assault.” After making such changes, “victim surveys [began] indicating significant satisfaction with police officers’ and detectives’ treatment of victims reporting sexual assault to law enforcement.” This positive change occasioned an influx of rape reports; the newspaper The Missoulian announced that “reporting rose some 54 percent” in the years following the launch of the Department of Justice’s investigation. Evidently, teaching police officers and detectives how to effectively respond to sexual violence minimizes victim-blaming, making victims more likely to report. I can personally attest to the importance of educating detectives about sexual violence. When I reported my rapist to the police in October, I was fortunate enough to be questioned by a detective who had attended a seminar about sexual violence and received training for working with PTSD. The detective’s empathic approach to questioning made me feel comfortable sharing my story and enabled me to describe the incidences of rape in detail.
Solution #2: minimize juror biases in sexual assault cases by educating future jurors about sexual violence. Considering that high school students are on the brink of becoming legal adults susceptible to jury duty, high school health courses should provide more comprehensive education about sexual violence and rape culture. Incorporating in-depth discussions about sexual violence into health curriculum and removing pre-existing, antiquated rhetoric such as “no means no” from health curriculum would not only prevent more students from victim-blaming and raping others, but also prepare students for potential jury duty.
Solution #3: eliminate statutes of limitations for rape cases because it would enable more rape victims to bring charges against their rapists. Multiple states already have a no-limitations rule for cases of rape, so why not push for all 50 states to adopt this rule.
Solution #4 is a matter of efficiency and humanity. Because even one rapist with parental rights is far too many, congress should enact a federal law which mandates that all states deny rapists parental rights regardless of whether or not the rapists have rape convictions. The utter lack of protection in 7 states is unacceptable and the conviction-reliant safeguards in other states are insufficient. Although a federal law can’t guarantee protection, enacting a federal law would surely decrease the incidence of rapists gaining custody by giving victims in all states a chance at stripping their rapists of parental rights. In addition to providing all childbearing victims of rape with equal opportunity, enacting such a law at the federal level would send a clear message about the severity of rape, pressuring courts to convict rapists at a higher frequency. Now you know that the rape-enabling shortcomings of the US legal system have practical solutions; with these solutions in mind, you can begin advocating for positive change.
The legal system of the United States fails spectacularly at protecting Americans from rape; the legal system is riddled with biases and loopholes that protect rapists and contribute to rape culture itself. If 1 in 6 women and 3% of men experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetimes, then there’s a large chance that you or someone you know has been raped. Six of my friends and family members have suffered from rape, and it grieves me to think that there could be more. Rape is one of the most inhumane acts a person can commit. We cannot sit idly by as rape befalls our brothers, our mothers, our classmates, and our friends. We as human beings have a moral obligation to eradicate such wickedness from the world. We can start by eradicating wickedness here at home, overhauling the systems which enable rape and extending love and support to sexual violence survivors. The process starts with you speaking out.