Over recent months rape has moved to the forefront of conversations. Maybe it's time to listen to the victims.
Note: The story below is an excerpt from our March/April 2015 issue. For the full story download our FREE iOS app or view our digital edition for FREE today!
The identities of the women who agreed to talk about their rape and near-rape experiences for this story are hidden at their request.
Francis is a tall, attractive, 59-year-old, never-married owner of a small Roanoke company. When she was in 9th grade, she was gang-raped by a group of boys on the track during gym class.
“The boys cornered me, beat me and then one of them took his penis out. It got ugly,” she recalls.
“I was crying and another boy forced me to [his penis for oral sex]. They all took a turn, one after the other. Fortunately, they were young, so they didn’t last long. When they’d finished, they zipped up and proceeded to kick me. The bell finally rang and they all went back to class, happy as clams. I lay in the high jump pit, crying, disheveled, dirty.” They had not been missed by the gym teacher.
Francis cleaned up the best she could and went back to the gym.
“I was dirty, walking like a zombie and didn’t know what to do. There was no one I could tell, no one anywhere. So I went to class.”
There she met a second indignity: “I was late for class and the teacher took it as an affront that I would be late and disheveled. She berated me, gave me an F for the day and told me to sit in the hallway for the period and contemplate the error of my ways. It was a horror. I sat in the dark hall just blank. Fortunately, it was the last class of the day.
“I walked home – about three miles. I’d stopped riding the bus because of bullying. My parents saw that something was wrong and thought I’d just had a bad day. The next day, the boys who raped me were full of themselves and they beat me again.
“Then, in earth science class, the teacher, who was the husband of the teacher who had punished me the day before, called me in front of the class, said I had insulted his wife and proceeded to beat me. I was like a chunk of wood, numb. I got up and went back to my seat. Something died in me that day.”
A brutal rape at the University of Virginia reported in late 2014 brought one of our most savage, life-changing and hidden crimes screaming to the conscious surface.
It forced many of us to take a close look at a crime that for far too long has been hidden, denied. Sexual assault – of which rape is a subset – is one of the most underreported and one of the least understood of all crimes.
Sexual profiler John Perry, a 40-year career police officer who now consults with police agencies in the Roanoke Valley, says studies are lacking on reporting of rape, making it even harder to understand, predict and prosecute. The generic term “rape,” he explains, implies sexual penetration of the victim who either didn’t know it at the time (because of drugs, alcohol or other issues) or was unwilling to submit.
“Sexual assault,” says Perry, “is a broader topic, a larger umbrella.”
Perry is at the front line with the victim early in any investigation. He works closely with those pursuing the case and advising the victim in trying to create a profile of the rapist when that fact is not known – though most victims know their rapists.
“Sexual assault serves a non-sexual need,” says Perry. “You have to put sex into the formula because the rapist chose rape. ‘I want to do the worst thing I can to her,’ he thinks. It is a life-changing event.”
Perry’s best estimate is that 35 percent of rapes are reported to police. “What chance does the bad guy have of going to prison? About one in 10,” he says.
He says the criminal justice system has to take “some of the responsibility” for the low level of reporting, that in his experience, police officers rarely believe the victim is telling the truth about the rape. His own experience tells him that 60 to 80 percent of officers don’t believe the charge.
“The term ‘false allegation’ is huge, but research in false allegation is not politically correct, so we don’t have the data that could help,” Perry says.
But “this is broader than the criminal justice system. It involves society as a whole. The system just doesn’t deal with offenders the way victims believe it should.”
Perry mentions, almost as an aside, that there is no statute of limitations on rape.
Francis’ experience stayed with her for a long time. She retreated into herself, let her grades slip and finally graduated high school 400th in a class of 440, but she made a 1440 on the SAT test.
“I was sleep-walking through school, riding behind the kids on the short bus, but I was an incessant reader. I’d read anything to make the pain go away. I skipped a lot of school and discovered drugs by the time I was a senior. I hated people. Still do.”
It took “20 years of play-acting every day and several attempts at suicide” in order to “make any sense of it.” She went through “a number of different careers, screwing up again and again.”
She feels free of the rape finally. “It took 41 years,” she says. “What I went through was the classic response. It was my fault, I asked for it, I deserved it, I was of no value. Today, I’m happy, strong, confident, comfortable and I have no pretense left in talking about the rape. I had to go back and look and I’ve come to some conclusions.
“Males are not taught what to do with lust, not taught how to shape and modify it. The porn culture teaches them to look at girls as objects and girls are taught to be objects. The girls are punished by both sides. Men are acting out of their own patriarchial hatred for women. Most men do not like women.”
Melissa Harper is a forensic nurse at Carilion who sees rape victims shortly after the event to treat and evaluate them. She is well-known in the field and speaks on sexual assault at conferences. She is on a governor’s commission on sexual assault.
“The information we collect is vital in guiding the patient’s care first and foremost,” she says. She estimates that two to eight percent of reported rapes are false, a number Perry disputes. “A great majority of rape victims are not lying. Society, though, tends not to believe them. Victims blame themselves.”
Harper says rape rarely happens with a stranger jumping out of the bushes: “Most of the offenders are known by the victim. They’re not strangers … Accusations are easiest to believe by society when the victim has been physically brutalized, although this is uncommon. Five percent of victims suffer a life-threatening injury and less than one percent die in connection with their sexual assault.”
If there is no immediate health threat, victims are taken to a forensics room where they are examined in depth. “There is a full physical exam and skin assessment,” as well as a full history of the event, says Harper.
A victim’s advocate group like SARA (Sexual Assault Response and Awareness) is brought in to counsel the victim and work further. “Society thinks women are not strong,” says Harper, “but these women are incredibly strong mentally.”
Rapists are often involved in other high-risk behaviors that could increase risk of HIV and Hepatitis B. All sexual assault victims are screened for pregnancy risks and offered emergency contraception.
Some of the victims “don’t want the police involved,” she says. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of them involving one fear or another. “The level of trauma is similar to the trauma experienced by those who walk out of war.”
The whole process “hurts our hearts, but if we cry we can’t help.”