Is rape a crime?

That’s the question at the center of Michelle Bowdler’s provocative 2020 book with this title – and in light of the June 30 announcement that a conviction against Bill Cosby, accused by 60 women of sexual assault and rape, would be Canceled on constitutional grounds, Bowdler’s question takes on new urgency.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that only a quarter of all rapes committed each year are reported. According to RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network), out of 1,000 sexual assaults, 310 will be reported to the police, 50 will lead to arrests, 28 to a conviction and 25 to imprisonment. Although studies estimate that between 2 and 10 percent of rape allegations are false reports – about the same rate as other crimes – law enforcement officials are disproportionately likely to dismiss cases of rape. rape as unfounded.

“Are there other crimes where the first question asked is whether the victim is telling the truth,” Bowdler asks in his book, “and where there is no further investigation into whether can this conclusion be supported by facts? “

Cosby’s case is unusual. He was convicted of sexual assault in 2018 in Montgomery County, Pa., And sentenced to three to ten years in state prison for assaulting Andrea Constand more than a decade earlier, in 2004. However, in 2005, Cosby had reached an informal agreement with Bruce Castor, then a Montgomery County district attorney, under which Castor assured Cosby that he would not pursue criminal charges against him. When filed in a civil case Constand brought against him later that year, Cosby admitted to giving Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with. This deposition was then used as evidence against Cosby during his trial in 2018.

Bill Cosby with his team (L to R) lawyer Jennifer Bonjean, spokesperson Andrew Wyatt and others outside Cosby’s home in Cheltenham, Pa. On June 30.
Michael Abbott / Getty Images

Cosby likely would not have made such an admission of guilt in his testimony if he had believed criminal charges would be laid against him, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found. This logic formed the basis for his June 30 decision that Cosby’s case would be overturned and Cosby himself would be released from prison.

There is a legal argument to be made that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made the right decision in a complicated case, as Ian Millhiser of Vox explains here. But in the context of a larger conversation about the difficulty of securing a rape conviction, the vacation of a conviction as high-profile as Cosby’s is striking.

Is rape a crime? is one of the best summaries of this conversation that I know of. Part memory, part overt, it tells of how Bowdler overcame his own rape in 1984, when two strangers broke into his house and robbed and assaulted it with a knife point. Bowdler immediately reported his rape to police and subjected himself to a long and traumatic sexual assault evidence package, but his attackers were never arrested. It will be 20 years before she learns that the police never investigated her rape, apparently because the detective in charge of the case didn’t care about the department’s new bureaucratic policies on assault cases. sexual and did everything possible.

“My ability to learn more about a trauma that changed my life depended on what that person had done with me,” Bowdler wrote, “and it seemed like he hadn’t done anything.”

As Is rape a crime? makes it clear that cases like Bowdler’s have occurred across the country: shocking acts of violence that police would never investigate, or prosecutors would refuse to prosecute, or juries would dismiss out of hand; acts of violence that the machinery of our law enforcement system would refuse, again and again, to treat as crimes. This is the context in which Cosby’s overturned conviction exists.

To understand, I called Bowdler, who is now the Executive Director of Health and Wellness at Tufts University, and asked him to put everything into words for me. The day after Cosby’s vacation was announced, we talked about how the justice system is failing rape victims and what it would mean to really treat rape as a crime. Our conversation, slightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

What does it mean to ask the question “is rape a crime?” “

This is actually a question that was asked of me by a survivor. At first it shocked me.

She came to this question, and I came to this question, after doing some advocacy work, trying to make changes to the criminal justice system, and feeling like we hadn’t done the kind progress that we expected given the many conditions that existed. After yesterday, it seemed even more relevant.

The question is actually meant to ask, “What does it take for survivors to feel that they can get some form of justice, or even recognition of the devastation of this experience in our society?” “

It is the least successful major crime. This is the least reported. Very, very few of the crimes reported are even prosecuted and convicted. And while I have my own important criticism of our current criminal justice system, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least consider why this crime is being treated differently from all the others.

I think some people would look at Bill Cosby’s case and say, “Okay, but his sentence isn’t being quashed because law enforcement didn’t take his crime seriously. It’s because the team of prosecutors screwed up. How do you respond to this idea?

The prosecution team is part of the criminal justice system. Think about what it takes to get a conviction. Think of that New York magazine cover with 35 women, just sitting down, who accused him of the same behavior. For many different reasons, some came forward and others did not feel comfortable pursuing him. Which is understandable: he was rich and famous. Yet when they all came together, the model was created.

For him to be released this way, where he reported that he was justified, and he doesn’t have to register as a sex offender – it’s like nothing that has happened in the past few years has happened.

The people were devastated. It looks more like the same. What does it take for people to be held accountable?

In 2017 and 2018, as the Me Too movement really took off, I think a lot of people were hoping that something had fundamentally changed in our culture, and that we really started treating rape and sexual assault as serious crimes. . Do you think the change has really happened?

Right after Harvey Weinstein, when the people who had been charged lost their jobs, it was as if a difference started. In fact, there was a slight lag in the data for 2017: case reporting seemed to drop from around a quarter to 40%. People wondered if this was going to be a trend. Now it’s a quarter again.

Chris Matthews is back on television. Jeffrey Toobin is back on television. Charlie Rose could make a comeback. Louis CK is sort of back.

It’s like, “I’m going to say I’m sorry. I’ll say I’ll do some sort of treatment and then come back. It doesn’t really work that way, and the impact on victims and survivors doesn’t work that way either.

I think people are talking about it and writing more about it. There is much more expression of outrage and an awareness of how and why we need to make changes. And it is appreciated.

But I think we’re going to have to do a lot more to get the changes to catch on: overhaul our criminal justice system. Have more people in politics who are more like the rest of society. Make the core values ​​of justice and fairness predictable and not come as a surprise when they occur.

What would it look like to treat rape as a crime?

This is the answer. Right now, someone is talking to law enforcement and we don’t believe him. It’s: “Are you sure? You are a bit hazy about the details. They try to convince people not to go ahead, because law enforcement comes down to “what is my win rate, what is my case resolution rate”, and rape cases are notorious. difficult.

So to begin with, for the people who hear people’s stories to treat it like any other report of a devastating event. Don’t wonder if it’s true in the first place, just listen, care, and investigate.

There were hundreds of thousands of rape kits in towns and villages across the country that were never investigated. It was what was called a backlog, as if people intended to deal with it, but ran out of money. But in fact, many of these cases were dismissed without investigation.

It is a crime of violence. Over 50 percent of people believe it will end with their death. It is not what he / she said, but people treat him as if he is as likely to lie as if he is telling the truth.

We’re not going to get people to report, and we’re not going to get them to be taken seriously, if we continue like this. But there’s a healing that takes place when people just listen. If they believe you and say they’re sorry this happened, they’ll try to investigate.

It’s really hard to go through a criminal case. What if there was an alternative? What if we did more on restorative justice? What if we did more to support the people who went through such a devastating crime and had ways to make them feel that they could move forward in our world and function, rather than thinking about guilt and innocence and to win business?

All the model we have is defective. Our criminal justice system is not the model I would consider to help rape victims feel taken seriously. But if we’re going to do that, we need to have people trained in trauma response. We need to have a way that survivors feel recognized and validated, and not treated as liars and as if they were wasting their time. Which is too often the case.

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