Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Risk Factors for Raping

Rape is a special kind of evil, it is often said. It’s a horrific violation of a person’s body and can change the victim’s life forever.

But perhaps what puts rape, and by extension sexual assault, in a class of its own is its sheer pervasiveness. RAINN, the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the US, reports that “every 107 seconds another American is sexually assaulted,” resulting in more than 290,000 victims every year.

A CDC study found that nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. has experienced a completed or attempted rape.

Which raises the question, is America composed entirely of darkened back alleys or what? Because most rapists are strangers, right? Wrong.

RAINN also reports that 4 out of 5 assaults are “committed by someone known to the victim.” Nearly half of rapes are what are called “acquaintance rapes,” where the attacker is a friend or acquaintance of the victim.

Meaning, most people are raped by people they know.

Time to sound the alarm bells, because the enemy is within, not without. Rapists exist within our communities, our homes, our shared spaces. Rapists are our friends, lovers, roommates, bandmates and coworkers, not complete monsters from the dark side who love the sound of screaming.

Instead of talking you to death, I am going to save my breath and just say that society is to blame. The slings and arrows of rape culture have been baked into our patriarchal system from the very beginning.

And today we are still conditioned to accept rape and sexual violence as a fact of everyday life, to shrug and laugh it off (rape jokes), to blame, doubt and vilify the victim, to stonewall, deny and hedge the issue. And worst of all, to shame survivors, thus preventing an open and honest dialogue about the topic.

But if we are to have an open and honest conversation about rape we would soon be confronted with the biggest problem, how we frame the issue. Take for instance those public service announcements teaching women how to avoid being a victim of rape. But so long as men continue to commit the majority of rapes, victim-blaming won’t solve the problem.

Instead, it’s young men and boys who need to be targeted by anti-rape campaigns. Rather than teaching women how not to get raped, we have to teach men how not to rape.

We need “to attack the culture that creates predators in the first place,” writes Zerlina Maxwell, to rip these illusions out by the roots, so to speak.

In a reversal of traditional prevention efforts, let’s look at the risk factors associated not with being raped, but with being a rapist. 

A risk factor is a variable that is linked to an increased risk of something bad occurring, like a disease in the body, or an undesirable behavior in the community, like rape. Risk factors help us identify associations between things.

Get ready to turn blue with shock (especially if you are a member of the gender “dude”) because it turns out a man is at an increased risk of raping if he engages in any of the following activities:

1. Goes to college.
The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing writes in its report, "The Problem of Acquaintance Rape of College Students":

Women ages 16 to 24 experience rape at rates four times higher than the assault rate of all women, making the college (and high school) years the most vulnerable for women. College women are more at risk for rape and other forms of sexual assault than women the same age but not in college. It is estimated that almost 25 percent of college women have been victims of rape or attempted rape since the age of 14.

RAINN notes on its online page, Campus Safety:

According to a December 2000 report entitled “The Sexual Victimization of College Women” by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) at the U.S. Department of Justice, a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year.

2. Enjoys a night out on the town.

NPR covered this topic in its piece, "If He's Sexually Aggressive In Bars, It's Not Because He's Drunk,” stating:

When researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Washington observed young people's behavior in bars, they found that the man's aggressiveness didn't match his level of intoxication. There was no relationship. Instead, men targeted women who were intoxicated.

3. Befriends a woman. 

"Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted" asserts a New York Times headline: 

More than half of female rape victims had been raped by an intimate partner, according to the study, and 40 percent had been raped by an acquaintance; more than half of men who had been raped said the assailant was an acquaintance. 

4. Dates or marries a woman.

"Nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. has been sexually assaulted,” reports Feministing:

This should be old news by now, but it bears repeating: The myth of the stranger-in-the-alley rape is way off. More than half of female survivors reported being raped by a current or former partner and 40% reported being raped by an acquaintance. Only about 1 in 7 were raped by a stranger.

Fortunately, these risk factors are something we can control and change, unlike genetic traits.

But seriously, YIKES!

It’s shocking to learn that the majority of rapes don’t happen at knife-point but rather with the help of sly social engineering (like manipulating a person’s trust) and/or alcohol and drugs, where consent cannot be legally or affirmatively given.

However, further complicating this counter narrative to the dominant narrative of stranger rape is the reality that ANYONE can perpetuate sexual violence.

Men are also affected by sexual violence even though they make up the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of rape. A CDC study reported that “one in 71 men (1.4%) have been raped and nearly 5% have been made to penetrate someone else in their lifetimes.”

And let’s take an even bigger step back and openly admonish me for talking in incredibly cisnormative terms here, keeping things neatly organized according to the socially constructed gender binary by using misleading words like men and women, when what I am really implying is cisgender men and women.

To be clear, all abusers are not cis men and not all victims are cis women. And certainly not all abusers are straight. Cis straight women can commit sexually abusive acts, as well as cis or non-cis queer women, trans people and non binary conforming folks. Misogynistic violence stems heavily from toxic forms of masculinity that for different reasons are internalized, mimicked or reproduced by anyone, including sex and gender minorities.

However, transgender people, especially transgender women, are MUCH MORE likely to be victims of sexual abuse and violence, than perpetrators of it. (Remember this next time you are combating negative stereotypes of trans people, which I am sure you do.)

So now that we have a clear understanding of who the rapists are, overwhelmingly cis, straight and male, our friends and colleagues, neighbors and lovers, rather than strangers, how do we react when someone we know, and perhaps love, commits the ultimate evil act?

That’s what this zine hopes to get you talking about. And it’s a conversation that poses some interesting questions, especially since we know the epic failure of traditional criminal justice approaches to rape and sexual assault.

RAINN reports that “68% of rapes are never reported to police and 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail or prison.”

How about them apples?

If perps aren’t spending their days behind bars, that means they're outside with the rest of us, chilling in our communities and social circles.

So do we seek vengeance, retribution, punishment, justice? And what does justice look like? Especially when the rapists are our friends, not cartoonish super villains (though some rapists are serial offenders adverse to change and they deserve to be struck down with all our wrath).

It appears that we have two possible options, one: “name and shame” and blacklist the individual, or two: call out the individual while helping to create a space for them to come forward, admit their wrongs and be held to account. This means engaging and talking with them and creating a space that would enable them to seek treatment and atone for their sins. (But of course not at the expense of the victim, whose safety, well-being and healing MUST be prioritized above all else.)

Do we believe people can change? Can they be reformed? Is it possible to turn over a new leaf and make up for one’s misdeeds after fully appreciating the consequences of one’s actions and the pain they have caused?

Do we reform and reintegrate sexual offenders, most of whom will never be charged with a crime, back into the community or put a metaphorical bullet between the eyes?

There's a big difference between the I-regret-nothing-perpetrator-of-sexual-violence and those on a redemption quest, and I bet most abusers sit somewhere in the middle.

But without selling out to rape culture or being rape apologists, how do we create a culture where men and boys are encouraged to hold themselves and others to account for their sexual offenses, to “call out their friends, relatives, and classmates for inappropriate behavior and create systems of accountability amongst them"?

If we get back to tackling the issue at its roots, of targeting young men and boys and teaching them how to respect the bodily autonomy of others, the question of creating this space is critical. Especially if our goal is to reduce the incidence of sexual assault long-term.

I would argue that shaming, vilifying and ostracizing abusers (the ones open to reform, to be clear) disincentivizes the process of accountability and further buries the issue and entrenches rape culture. Which isn’t good for anybody. Who will be brave enough to come forward, if only to be met with rejection and humiliation?

These are important questions to ask. And hopefully by seeking answers to them we can deepen the conversation with the kind of critical self-examination and analysis needed to help transform our communities and protect the autonomy and well-being of every individual.

The search for constructive solutions to the problem of sexual violence is desperately needed, since penal and punitive responses are failing us so miserably.

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