For over a week, the media was obsessed with the mythical girlfriend of Manti Te’o, a Notre Dame football player, who was supposedly heartbroken because his beloved girlfriend had died last fall. Although he claimed that he had actually seen the young woman, it turned out to be a gigantic hoax.
But the death of a young woman connected to Notre Dame football players remained largely invisible as far as the media was concerned. Two years ago, Lizzy Seeberg was sexually assaulted by one of the football players. She reported this to the police who failed to investigate the assault. The attacker’s teammates terrified Lizzy, and she committed suicide. Another young woman taken to the hospital for a rape exam refused to accuse the Notre Dame football player who sexually attacked her because she had received bullying texts from the teammates. The university has called for an investigation into the Te’o event, but no disciplinary action was ever taken against the football players.
The situation at Notre Dame is not unique. After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch has uncovered “disturbing evidence of police failure” in the Washington, D.C. police force in their failure to investigate reports of rape. The 200-page report will be released tomorrow.
Carol Tracy of the Women’s Law Project, a legal advocacy group specializing in sexual violence cases, said, “This is a national crisis requiring federal action. We need a paradigm shift in police culture, because rapes and sexual assaults are being swept under the rug, and too many victims are being bullied.” In cities across the United States, the police list a large number of reported rapes as “unfounded cases.” Although the national average is 6 percent, Pittsburgh shelves 34 percent of its cases, North Carolina 31 percent, Atlanta 24 percent, etc. New Orleans shelved 50 percent of sex attack cases as “non-criminal complaints.” In New York, the number of recorded rapes declined, but the number of sex crimes labeled as mere misdemeanors rose.
According to experts, an average of 5 percent of reported rapes are falsified. Anything over that shows that investigators don’t believe large number of victims or threaten and arrest them.
Cities also report thousands of untested rape kits. Former Miss Arizona Hilary Peele is a rape victim-turned advocate after her rape kit was neglected following an attack in her apartment in 2004. Police didn’t test her kit for DNA until she had called every two weeks for eight months. In Cleveland, Ohio, serial rapist and murderer Anthony Sowell was caught in 2011 after killing 11 women, six of them after a rape kit was disregarded. Milwaukee serial rapist Gregory Below was finally sentenced to 350 years in 2011, but three of his victims said the police initially dismissed their cases.
The country has one-half million or more untested kits are stacked up around the country. In Illinois alone, 80 percent of rape kits were untested as of 2010. In Michigan, the Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy, discovered over 11,000 untested rape kits, some dating to the 1980s.
Even worse, some states require women or their insurance companies to collect the evidence in these rape kits. In 31 states, rapists can get visitation rights if their victims carry pregnancies full term.
If you think that rapes only happen at Notre Dame or in India or in Steubenville, you are wrong. A person is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes, and many of these are in small towns, including where you live. For every 100 rapes, only three lead to jail time for the rapist.
These problems were made very clear at our most recent local NOW meeting when a special prosecutor for sex crimes in our Oregon Coast county spoke about the rape culture of this area. She talked about her first case when she took this position. The case had been abandoned in the DA office for four years because they thought it couldn’t be successfully prosecuted. Although it was common knowledge among the young man’s peers that he had raped several girls, he came from a well-liked family in the community.
Because the rapes were common knowledge, his freedom communicated the message–every day–that rape is acceptable. As the prosecutor said, every community has privileged kids who can act with impunity. People make justifications for not prosecuting rape: the victim was drunk, she is one of “those people,” she dressed like she wanted it. With their sense of entitlement, perps get told that it’s okay to violate “some people.” Forcible rape is frequently called “innocent sexual experimentation.”
It’s not just the rapists who make the act of sexual assault acceptable to the community. Police officers (as the report on Washington, D.C. shows) who overlook rape, attorney generals who ignore the arrests, and the judges who have their own biases, like the one in California who said that there is no rape unless the woman is “torn up inside”–these are the people who legitimize rape.
The talk by this international authority on sexual assault was tragic enough, but her message about the culture of rape in our community was compounded by the people who did not attend. Local police officers, prosecutors, judges, the DA, and all the other people who can stop the rape culture were notified. They just didn’t think it was important to come. That absence reinforces the silence that perpetuates the rape culture of any community. People are left to say, “It doesn’t happen in my county.”
Many times, a meeting likes this ends when people leave the room. I hope that this isn’t going to happen this time. One person attending has already written a letter to the local newspaper which read in part:
“We were disheartened that community leaders, law endorsement, and elected officials chose not to attend. It seems to send a message that sex abuse is to be tolerated and kept quiet, in effect sending a message to victims that nothing will be done if they report.”
The agenda for the next local NOW meeting is to develop a strategy designed to change the rape culture of our community. I look forward to reporting on that plan.