Rape: False beliefs keep majority from coming forward

By Jim Mayse

Posted on messenger-inquirer.com
Sunday, June 9, 2013

In 2011, there were 83,425 forcible rapes reported to law enforcement agencies in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But fewer than half of all rape and sexual assaults are reported to the police.

The reason rape and sexual assault are so under-reported is because they are different than other crimes. Unlike burglary, robbery or a nonsexual assault, crimes that involve forced or coerced sexual abuse are shrouded by “rape myths.”

Those myths take various forms, but the cores of the myths are the same — essentially, that the victim was somehow responsible or at least partly responsible for the assault.

“Rape myths are best (seen) as stereotypes,” says a 2011 report on rape victims from the American Psychological Association. “As with other stereotypes, any particular incident of sexual assault may or may not conform to the myths about rape; however, isolated incidents that are in accordance with the myth tend to be widely publicized. The vast majority of rapes that contradict the myth, however, are overlooked.”

The U.S. Justice Department, in a 2006-10 survey of crime victims, found only 46 out of every 100 rapes are reported to law enforcement. Of victims who initially file a criminal complaint of a rape, attempted rape or sexual assault, some will later decide not to continue the investigation or pursue charges against the assailant.

Law enforcement officers and case workers who help rape victims are well aware of rape myths, and police departments and prosecutors attempt to guide victims through the investigative and court process, so reporting and prosecuting a rape or sexual assault will be somewhat less traumatic.

But rape myths are so pervasive that it’s not at all uncommon for the victim of an assault to believe rape myths as well.

“I think almost every client I run into has some form of self-blame or self-guilt,” said Tara Gann, a social worker with New Beginnings Sexual Assault Support Services.

Becky Nix, who is also a social worker for New Beginnings, said even child victims of sexual abuse will blame themselves.

” ‘My shorts were too short.’ I’ve heard 9-year-olds say that,” Nix said. “(With adult victims), there are so many examples — ‘I shouldn’t have been running at 10 at night,’ ‘I shouldn’t have been drinking.’ Even when physical force is used, (the victim) felt they should have been able to ‘MacGyver’ their way out of it.”

Rape myths are common — but they’re also overwhelmingly false. In cases of rape, sexual abuse and child molestation, the only person at fault is the person who commits the crime.

“Nothing (victims) have done has given any individual the right to commit a rape,” said Major Jeff Speed, supervisor for the Owensboro Police Department’s Field Services Division. “The best thing a victim can do is call us immediately and help us do the things that are necessary to build a case. When that’s done, it’s more easy to prosecute.”


According to the 2011 APA report on victims of sexual assault, 17 percent of college students questioned in a 2007 survey “believe that women could not be forced into sex.” In addition, 30 percent of students surveyed “endorsed the statement that women often falsely accuse men of rape.”

Actually, false reports are extremely rare. Nix said fewer than 2 percent of sexual abuse reports from children are later found to be false. With adults, between 3 and 7 percent of sexual assault reports are false.

There is a higher rate of false reports of burglary than of sexual assault, Nix said.

Lt. Chris Brown, supervisor of OPD’s criminal investigations division, said, in his experience, it’s rare to receive a false report of a sexual assault.

“I would say that’s very uncommon,” Brown said. “There’s usually something that has happened” to the victim.

If a sexual assault victim goes to the hospital, physical evidence is gathered by registered nurse trained as a sexual assault nurse examiner. New Beginnings sends a case worker to be with the victim while the evidence is gathered.

The evidence is placed in a rape kit and is held for up to 90 days, which allows the victim time to consider filing a criminal complaint.

Of course, not every assault victim goes to the hospital right away or makes an immediate report to law enforcement. Detective Morgan Palmiter of the Daviess County Sheriff’s Department said most sexual assault reports are made between two days and two weeks after the incident.

When assaults are reported immediately, the initial report is taken by a deputy or patrol officer, who then contacts a detective. Palmiter said the deputy will gather case information for the detective by interviewing the victim.

Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said victims who have just had a traumatic experience misinterpret police interview questions — buying into rape myths that either blame the victim or excuse the actions of the attacker.

“Part of (law enforcement’s) training is to ask the questions repeatedly to get all the details,” Berkowitz said.

The victim, however, interprets the repeated questions as an attempt to blame the victim, Berkowitz said. A victim who feels she — or he, as adult men can also be victims of sexual assault — is not believed by law enforcement can decide to not pursue criminal charges.

“Data suggest about 5 percent of cases are (ruled) unsubstantiated,” Berkowitz said. “Some cases that are labeled (false reports) are from the victim pulling back and not participating in the prosecution.”

Taking the initial report of a rape or sexual assault is a delicate process. Lt. Chris Castlen of OPD said all department officers receive training in crisis intervention, which stresses the need for officers to take time with victims of traumatic incidents such as sexual assault.

“Basically, what crisis intervention training teaches is active listening skills — being empathetic and understanding what victims are going through,” Castlen said. While the initial impulse of the officer and the officer’s supervisor may be to determine the facts quickly, officers are taught to slow down with victims of trauma.

“We know speed is of the essence, but when you have a more sensitive matter, (supervisors must) give the officer time to get the information and do it by spending a little more personal time with the victim,” Castlen said.

Palmiter said investigators understand recounting details of a sexual assault is painful for the victim.

“An individual will, unfortunately, be interviewed quite a few times,” Palmiter said. “We hate to put that individual through that, but sometimes they will have to tell it two or three times.”

Victims are interviewed more than once because, as the initial shock of the assault recedes, the victim might remember details that will help the investigation.

“It’s easy in a situation where there is no stress or pressure to recount a story,” Berkowitz said. “But when you come through this trauma, (the victim’s initial account) comes across to the listener as a little disjointed. It’s actually not a sign that the victim is lying — it’s a sign they’re telling the truth.”

In the Owensboro region, child victims of sexual abuse and rape are interviewed at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Henderson — a facility where staff are specially trained on how to talk to very young children about the assault and on how to gather evidence. The goal of the Children’s Advocacy Center is to provide a more comfortable atmosphere where children can feel less traumatized by the interview and exam process.


It’s not uncommon for there to be little or no physical evidence of a rape or sexual assault. Brown said only about 25 percent of rape cases the police department investigates have any physical evidence.

It’s not hard to understand why. As Palmiter said, victims usually don’t make reports to the sheriff’s department until some time between a couple of days to a couple of weeks after the assault. Any physical evidence is long washed away — the victim’s natural impulse after a sexual assault is to try to be clean. If a victim was threatened or coerced rather than physically forced into the assault, there won’t be other physical signs, such as bruising from blows.

Also, sexual abuse — characterized as inappropriate sexual touching of a person who is unable to consent because of age, being physically helpless or because the perpetrator is in a position of authority — leaves no evidence at all. But the lack of physical evidence does not prevent prosecutors from successfully bringing charges against an assailant.

“A lot of times .. there’s no physical evidence,” said Michael Van Meter, assistant commonwealth’s attorney for the Daviess County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. “In the majority of cases we prosecute, there’s no forensic evidence. With touching, you’re not going to have physical evidence.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bruce Kuegel said even if there is no physical evidence, investigators can use the victim’s statements to establish a timeline of the abuse.

“Whether (the victim) is a child or an adult, there’s usually some corroboration as to the facts — (such as) dates and opportunity,” Kuegel said. “That’s what comes together through the investigation.” Being able to put together a timeline — to show that the assailant had access to the victim at times the assault or assaults are reported to have occurred — is strong evidence in a prosecution, Kuegel said.

Prosecutors meet with the victim — or the victim’s family if the victim is a child — and walk them through the legal process. If a victim later wants to halt the prosecution, prosecutors try to determine what they can do to help the victim, Van Meter said.

“We get (adult victims) in and interview them and try to get to the root of their reluctance,” Van Meter said.”A lot of times after we meet with them, a lot of their fears are alleviated.”

“I think what people see on TV is the ‘doubting prosecutor,’ and that’s not the case,” Kuegel said.

Counselors from New Beginnings also support victims going through the legal process. Because criminal cases can take months, a year or even longer from start to finish, victims often become frustrated, Nix said.

“I think the legal aspect they really don’t know, because they go by what they see on TV,” Nix said. “(On television), it’s done in an hour. In reality, it’s a year to a year-and-a-half process.”

In cases that do go to trial, the defense is limited in the types of questions it can ask the victim. The state’s Rules of Evidence prohibit a victim from being questioned about any other sexual behavior, unless such questions are geared toward proving someone other than the defendant committed the assault, or to prove consent in the incident being tried.

Before an exception is allowed, however, a separate hearing must be held, when the judge will determine whether to allow the questioning.

“That’s a misconception victims have — the way they’re going to be cross-examined at trial, the ordeal they’re going to have to go through,” Kuegel said.

At trial, many potential jurors are struck from the jury pool because it is revealed they have been victims of sexual assault, Van Meter said.

“I can tell you right now, sexual abuse is under-reported, just based on my perspective with potential jurors themselves,” Van Meter said.

Like other criminal cases, most cases of rape or sexual abuse do not go to trial. Most cases are settled by plea agreement, without the victim ever having to testify before a jury.

“It’s uncommon for a case to go to trial,” Berkowitz said. “We try to educate victims that the process might be a little easier” than they anticipate, Berkowitz said.


People who commit rape and sexual assault do so for various motives. Adults who sexually abuse children are motivated by sex — but the abuser also engages in a certain degree of self-delusion, Nix said.

“They convince themselves the child loves it, too — ‘They will love me and I will love them and I will educate them,’ ” Nix said. “Or, it’s power: ‘I can make a kid do anything I want.’ ”

With adults who rape or sexually assault other adults, there are as many motives as there are for any other crime. A 2004 report by the American Psychological Association in which male college students were interviewed anonymously found repeat sexual offenders had “more hostile gender-role beliefs, more callous attitudes toward women, greater acceptance of verbal pressure as a sexual strategy, more dating partners in their lifetime, earlier age at first consensual sex, more consensual sex partners … larger quantities of alcohol consumed when dating and prior to having consensual sex and more acts of delinquency committed in adolescence.”

Adult offenders are aware that what they are doing is wrong, Tara Gann of New Beginnings said.

“They know exactly what they are doing,” Gann said. “They’re very manipulative, they know what to say (to law enforcement).”

The job of law enforcement is to gather the facts. “Sometimes, you’re not going to get the motive behind it,” said Speed. The investigator’s job is collect “facts to present to the grand jury,” he said.

While the social workers at New Beginnings have studied motives of perpetrators, their goal is provide assistance to the victim, who has suffered a traumatic assault — to help the person move away from being a “victim” and becoming a survivor instead.

“We provide individual and family counseling for anyone who has ever been a victim of sexual victimization,” Gann said.

“We provide legal advocacy, we go for court and interviews,” Nix said.

People who have experienced sexual assault can be referred to New Beginnings by schools, social workers, law enforcement agencies or the victim’s family or friends. Hospitals are required by law to notify their regional sexual assault support agency when a person reports an assault.

“The hardest thing for someone to do is walk through our door,” Nix said.

Children don’t disclose abuse because they’re manipulated by the abuser to remain silent. According to the Center for Behavioral Intervention, “children get tricked into thinking they ‘went along with it’ or ‘caused it’ … Offenders tell children (adults) ‘won’t believe them,’ will ‘be angry at them’ or (will be) ‘hurt’ by the disclosure.”

If the offender is a family member, the child also feels guilt for the turmoil caused by reporting the abuse, Gann said.

“They think it’s their fault, because they broke the family up,” Gann said.

Adults don’t seek help because they attempt to block out the incident or cope on their own. “Most of their thoughts are not rational when it comes to self-blame and self-guilt,” Nix said. Some victims become afraid of everybody and believe they are going be victimized again.

“What they’re feeling becomes truth for them,” Nix said. “That sense of doom is a symptom of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) — ‘something is going to happen to me.’

“We’re constantly working to disprove those irrational thoughts (through therapy), because they’ll start making decisions based on those irrational thoughts,” Nix said.

With New Beginnings clients, “we do a lot of safety planning — ‘what are the things to watch out for,'” Gann said.

Berkowitz said RAINN’s emergency hot line can contact regional support services to meet with a client. “We’ll connect them with someone directly in the community, to sit with them during the police interview or meet with them at the hospital,” Berkowitz said.

“Even though the majority of cases are still not reported, the reporting rate has gone up,” Berkowitz said.

James Mayse, 691-7303, [email protected]