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All Rape Is 'Real' Rape

By Alice Vachss
Originally published in The New York Times, OP-ED, August 11, 1993

This summer, when "whirlpooling" replaced "wilding" as the latest media-designated sex crime, the peer group that spawned such gang assaults rallied to their defense. It blamed the victims ("girls have to know how to take care of themselves!") and excused the offenders ("this was just innocent horseplay!"). I toured this country recently and learned again that such prejudices pollute far more than New York City's public swimming pools.

Only one in 100 victims of forcible rape sees her attacker sent to prison, according to a report released in June by the Senate Judiciary Committee—hardly a group notable for a feminist stance. Our criminal justice system has sent a near-universal message. For victims, the message signifies betrayal, and for rapists the message is one of endorsement.

With mounting evidence and urgency, it is becoming apparent that we need to go to war against sexual assault. And just as at the brink of World War II, the more evident the need for conflict, the more strident the calls for appeasement.

It is no longer socially acceptable to openly condone sexual assault, so many (while facilely characterizing rape as "the worst thing that could happen to a woman") distinguish between "real" rape and what they insist are "gray areas" such as "date rape."

Those who make the distinction are, in effect, collaborators. To them, "real" rape can happen only between strangers. Their prototypical rapist is virtually an alien life form whose acts bear no resemblance to "normal" human behavior. The victim is always readily identifiable by her conduct, demeanor and life history as someone we would welcome into our own family. The "real" rapist strikes only at night, armed with weapons that would put Rambo to shame; nonetheless, the victim fights him to near-death and suffers multiple visible injuries. "Real" rapes take place in full view of upstanding eyewitnesses so that it is never simply "her word against his" and even then the eyewitness testimony must be buttressed by ample forensic evidence of trauma, semen, blood typing and DNA analysis. "Real" victims report the crime immediately. "Real" rapists, the products of excess testosterone, eventually confess.

It is hardly a surprise that few criminal assaults meet these criteria. It is a fact (and a disgrace) that, with rare exceptions, only those crimes that do are prosecuted successfully, from investigation to conviction to significant imprisonment.

Those who cling most tenaciously to the myth of "real" rape dismiss the overwhelming statistics to the contrary as the ravings of lunatic feminists. It may well be that feminists have their own agenda, but rape is not a feminist issue—it is a women's issue, and a human one.

When sexually violent young men prey on those closest and most vulnerable to them, collaborators say that "boys will be boys." They proclaim that "date rape" is synonymous with ungentlemanly conduct. Collaborators demand that we look primarily at the victim's conduct: What was she wearing? Did she lead him on? Was she asking for it? Rape seems to be the only crime that establishes performance criteria for victims.

We need to start looking at criminality, not victimology. Anyone who finds sexual gratification in the degradation, humiliation and pain of another human being is a predatory sadist. Whether or not he knew the victim, whether or not he used a weapon, if he used force (including extortion) to achieve sex, he crossed a line—a line collaborators would have us believe is blurred to the point of invisibility.

In the absence of significant consequences, such behavior will escalate. The incidence of stranger-to-stranger rape is directly proportional to the tolerance with which society treats acquaintance rape. And the incidence of all rape is directly proportional to our response to rapists.

Pollsters can argue about the number of unreported rapes. But no one can argue about their existence. "Date rape" is an unfortunate term in that it implies an inaccurate scenario of how rape occurs between people who know each other. "Sexual harassment" has been applied indiscriminately to describe acts ranging from coarse language to gunpoint sodomy.

All of this is true, but it does not change the basic truth: The deeper rape collaboration penetrates societal consciousness, the more the climate promotes sexual violence. Given the extraordinarily high rate of recidivism among rapists, the only thing "inevitable" about rape is its recurrence.

We know we have unacceptable levels of sexual violence. We ratify that truth every time we lock our doors at night, every time we worry about a loved one who doesn't arrive home when expected. Every woman who steps into an elevator alone or who must retrieve her car from a desolate parking lot knows the fear of sexual assault.

What we must also understand is that our fears are legitimate, and that the situation is one of our own making. We aid and abet rapists every time we settle for "treatment" (instead of prison) for the priest or the basketball coach who molests our children; every time we applaud a college football star even though we know he routinely beats up his girlfriend; every time we euphemize incest as "family dysfunction"; every time we acquit a rapist because his victim had too much to drink or asked him to use a condom.

Prosecutors wrongly ignore the 'gray areas'

We have allowed prosecutors to hide behind conviction rates instead of evaluating their performance in all cases of sexual assault, not just those they choose to prosecute. The myth of "real" rape permits them to decline to prosecute most rapists and offer probation or minimal sentences to more than half of those who are prosecuted.

We have a choice. We can believe the people who insist that things are not so bad—that "real" rape is the only form of sexual assault and that there is really not so much of that. Or we can start demanding change.

Sexual assaults flourish in a climate of "gray areas." So long as the myth of "real" rape survives, rapists will thrive. And we will all pay for their evil entertainment.

Alice Vachss is the author of Sex Crimes: Ten Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators", a book about her experience as the former chief of the Special Victims Bureau of the Queens District Attorney's office.


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