Much has been said about the rape culture that exists in today’s society, without a full definition of what rape culture is. To many, it refers to the general acceptance of trivializing sexual violence, from the popular use of rape as a term of competitive jest (for example, “I totally raped that exam,”) or the negations of the definition of rape, as in the example of Todd Akin’s ‘legitimate rape’ quote.

A less discussed aspect of rape culture, however, is the accepted response to the crime itself. In an essay on The Huffington Post, Amherst student Angie Epfiano, who went public with the story of her own rape, commented on the inability of victims to speak about their experiences.

“When you look at it, sexual assault and rape are basically the only violent crimes that when you talk about it, people close off.” She went on to explain, “If you were mugged in New York City people would be horrified. No one is going to sit there and say ‘Are you sure you were mugged?’ With sexual assault there is always this question of ‘Are you sure? What were you wearing?'”

In addition to trivialization and political naysaying, the tendency to disbelieve victims is devastating to rape survivors and contributes to the problem of rape itself. This is particularly harmful within law enforcement, when victims attempt to seek justice. Reporting rape can be a traumatic experience in and of itself; reliving the experience and undergoing invasive testing only to have doubting law officers and a lack of results can do far more harm than good, which only contributes to the cycle of silent victimhood, making this crime so devastating.

Discussions about this topic have often been greeted with fury and indignation, attributed to a lack of concern on the part of law enforcement, or a symptom of a wider trend of apathy towards rape victims. This may be part of the problem, but a recent article by Slate largely demystifies the problem and offers a ray of hope for victims.

Tom Tremblay, who worked in law enforcement, also noticed the tendency of his co-workers to disbelieve rape allegations. Yet this was not because of an inherent lack of concern but rather because the nature of a rape victim’s recollections are completely at odds with traditional methods of gathering evidence.

Victims often do not remember details sequentially or clearly. As a result of the intensity of the trauma, their stories will often change with time and can be fractured or out of order. With other crimes, such as robberies or assaults, victims can give clear descriptions and time frames. Rape victims are often initially incapable of this, but are instead able to recall select details, which may have little to do with the crime itself. Officers will often interrogate and press victims to remember timelines, details and sequences, which under normal circumstances, is integral to good police work. This approach, however, is not only futile in the case of rape, as it can bring about false memories and false information, but it can also damage the victims themselves, if they believe they are being doubted.

Tremblay, along with a psychologist and consultant, David Lisak, have started to retrain officers to better understand and work within the limitations of survivors of sexual crimes. As they describe in Slate:

“This means asking questions about what she smelled, felt, or heard as a way of delicately gathering evidence that may corroborate her account. If, for example, she correctly identifies the rapist’s cologne…that’s a sign she can provide accurate recollections.”

In the Slate-article, Tremblay describes a case in which the victim, when asked about sounds, recalled hearing the assailant walking in her apartment. That in turn triggered a memory of him talking on the phone to a car mechanic, and the victim remembered enough details of the conversation to allow the police to find the mechanic.

Tremblay and Lisak’s important work is a first step in changing rape culture. It shows that some of the practices within our society that we may believe unchangeable or unfair have simpler, structural sources. This, though a simple change, offers significant hope for survivors and the change of higher rates of prosecution for sexual offenders.

Cover photo courtesy of Flickr user Michael Grimes. Image listed under Creative Commons.

Share your thoughts

5 Responses

  1. Very interesting to read about the challenges both the police and victims face in these situations, particularly in terms of fragmented memory. I’m glad to see new interview techniques being pursued.

  2. Cops Rape sometimes that’s what it looks like
    I heard a painfully honest joke – talking with an average cop ” If you had missed 2 less questions on the cop test – you coulda been a fireman” If we the people continue to hire the least capable people that can almost do the job – some of the time – for the least bucks – we get what we pay for

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Join our free

Digital Communications Challenge for Changemakers!

Do you work with digital communications to drive change, for an organization or for your activism or advocacy?

  • Are you overwhelmed in this digital world?
  • Do you doubt your efforts or worry where to start?  
  • Are you having trouble connecting with the right audience?
  • Have you lost motivation this past year? 

If so, join Girls’ Globe’s free challenge to boost your digital communications and confidence as you work to make change in a digital world. 

Our 3-day challenge starts Tuesday, November 23. Sign up now and don’t miss out! 

Signing up will give you email updates about the challenge, and a subscription to our weekly emails with inspiration for changemakers. No commitments and it’s all free.

Coming Soon!

Subscribe and be the first to
know when we launch.

The content on Girls’ Globe is created by our members – activists, advocates and experts on gender equality, human rights and social justice from around the world.