The Reality of Rape

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When you hear the word rapist, what comes to mind? A wild-eyed stranger lurking in the shadows?

That’s a common perception. But it’s at odds with reality. The fact is, most sexual assaults—approximately two-thirds, according to national studies—are committed by someone the victim knows.

Jasmine*, a student at a university here in Coastal Virginia, learned this the hard way. In the autumn of 2013, she became friends with a fellow student named Michael*. Having just broken up with her boyfriend, she appreciated the platonic nature of the friendship. “It was nice to have a guy in my life I could just talk to,” she told me during an interview for this article.

Pretty soon they were hanging out several times a week, chatting and listening to music after class in his off-campus apartment. “He was so sweet,” she added. “I felt I could trust him with my life.”

One afternoon in mid-November, during an especially stressful day, she went to his apartment and told him she had an upset stomach.

“Let me get you some ginger ale,” he said.

Jasmine drank it quickly and momentarily felt better. But a few minutes later, she began to feel light-headed and drowsy. As she grew more and more disoriented, she felt Michael’s hands on her shoulders, then her breasts. Then he began unbuttoning her shirt. In her half-conscious state, she told him to stop, but she was too weak to fight him off. Soon she was naked and flat on her back, with Michael on top of her.

“I guess I blacked out after that,” she recalled, “because the next thing I remember is waking up in his bed and hearing the shower running. It was very dark, but I managed to find my clothes and my bag and leave.”

Over the next few weeks she struggled to come to terms with the trauma—the sense of betrayal, the violation of intimacy, and concerns that she might have contracted a sexually transmitted disease. But she told neither her parents nor her friends what had happened.

“I thought they would judge me,” she said. “I was worried that they’d think it was my fault.”

It’s a common reaction among rape victims, according to counselors. Indeed, 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)—and on college campuses 95 percent go unreported to authorities.

The reluctance is understandable, given that rape victims are often greeted with skepticism at best. What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Did you lead him on? These and other questions implying that the victim must bear some responsibility are frequently the first words a woman will hear after telling someone else about a sexual assault.

This fact was starkly underscored recently, during a rape trial in Texas, involving a 14-year-old girl. The rapist confessed to the crime—but the judge, a woman, gave him only 45 days in jail and 5 years probation on the premise that the girl was promiscuous and therefore “wasn’t the victim she claimed to be.”

The light sentencing sparked outrage nationwide—but was it really an aberration? There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the answer is no—that judge’s attitude is widespread. Last year, for example, after two high school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, tennis star Serena Williams commented in an interview that the girl “shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.” And a collection of Twitter comments assembled by the website suggests that Williams’ attitude was widely shared. “The whore was asking for it,” one person wrote. “Those poor boys,” commented another. “Their lives have been destroyed.”

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