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I know several men and women who have been affected by sexual assault and rape. Some of the cases of rape involved strangers, the man waiting in the shadows ready to attack. What I would call the traditional understanding of rape. However, the majority of the cases of rape from the people I know have been perpetrated by people they know; family members, neighbours, and friends. It seems though, regardless of whether the person knows their attacker or not, the victim is rarely believed.
The story of A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America follows the former type of rape. A serial rapist broke into different women’s homes and sexually assaulted them for hours, took pictures of them as souvenirs, and often stole objects from the victims as well. It took police several years before they could put everything together and figure out it was one person committing all these crimes. In the midst of all of this, one the victims was not taken seriously by the police. She was so distraught and traumatised that she ended up recanting her story and was charged with false reporting. Later, when evidence appeared, photos the rapist had taken of her whilst she was being attacked, the police had the impossible task of trying to apologise to a young woman they had terrified, bullied, and disregarded.
When you have public figures like Todd Akin in the U.S. saying “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down” in 2012, it is hardly surprising that the tragic story that unfolds in A False Report really happened. The trauma surrounding rape is unimaginable. It is also not standardised. The trauma of rape affects each person differently for the rest of their lives. The idea that a victim should act a certain way, oversimplifies the experience of rape survivors. There is no roadmap for trauma. It affects how and what we can remember and when we remember it. Our brains can be so efficient in blocking out the traumatic event that survivors might not even remember it happened to them until years later. This is often the case for child rape cases. The trauma also does not stop at the end of the rape either. In A False Report, T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong outline the crime scenes for rape. Generally, a crime scene will be a physical location. In the case for a rape, this might be the bedroom. However, the crime scene is also the body of the rape survivor and the body of the rapist. Since the rapist rarely sticks around to get caught, the survivor’s body is subject to another type of trauma: collecting samples of hair, skin, bodily fluids, etc. from all over their body. When people talk about ‘legitimate rape’ they assume that the survivor would go directly to the police. If it is a ‘real’ rape, evidence will prove it. So many men and women, however, do not do this step because they feel they will not be believed and the process of evidence collection is too much for them. If you ever wonder why women don’t offer up their bodies for a rape-kit examination after sexual assault, just ask the average woman how often she goes to get a PAP smear. Most women find the latter to be uncomfortable, painful, embarrassing, and inconvenient so they rarely do it. Now imagine asking for access to intimate parts of someone’s body after an act of violence and see how forthcoming they are with that.
The layers of trauma do not just stop at the medical examination. Rape survivors are asked to tell and retell, and retell, and fact check, and retell, and retell their stories of assault to police, medical staff, lawyers, judges, juries, and often times in court cases in front of their rapists. If their stories change slightly, the rapist had blue eyes one day then green the next, doubt can creep in. Compounded by the fact that there is a long legal history that encourages the disbelief of women in the case of rape (outlined in the book), it is easy to see how women might not want to come forward.
The reality is that false reporting in relation to rape is very low. There are no exact figures on it from a global scale, but many experts guess between 2-10% of all rape reports could be false. The issue with getting concrete data on rape is that it is one of the most under-reported crimes and the effects it has on survivors is unpredictable and ever-changing making it hard to collect information about the event. It was hard to read A False Report because I know so many people who have and have not reported their rapes for a variety of reasons. I have seen people in real pain not be believed by the people that mattered in their lives.
So after all of this, what can we do? Simple. Believe and support people who come forward about rape. Provide better training for police and medical staff to understand how trauma, specifically related to rape and sexual assault, can affect survivors. Understand that no one, regardless of age, gender, clothing, sexuality, height, weight, hair colour, religion, or geographical location is EVER asking for it.
Have you read “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America”? How do you think we can help rape survivors? As always, share the reading love.