No Safe Place: The Crime of Sexual Violence
It’s a story so common, it never even made it into the newspapers. A 49-year-old woman who lives in a middle class neighborhood on one of Salt Lake City’s busiest streets let her dog out one warm fall night as she always did. When he began barking furiously in the driveway, she ran outside to see what was wrong. As cars sped by, a masked man grabbed her and put a knife at her throat. Without saying a word, he pulled her by the arm, pushed her into her house and threw her on the bed. The dog ran in the house behind them, barking frantically. The man threw the dog against the wall, then raped the woman. He told her that if she screamed, he would “Nicole” her. Gritting her teeth, she focused on the small can of mace attached to her keychain on the table in the next room.
“I know that I will never, ever be the same person again. In fact, after it happened, I asked both my daughter and my sister if I looked different. Because I felt like I was so changed, it must be on my face,” she says. “All women are vulnerable like I am. And if they don’t realize it, they should. Because you never know what’s going to happen. You never ever know when it’s going to happen. And you always need to be checking your back. I have mace on my keychain, but you don’t run outside to see what your dog’s barking at with your mace in hand. And maybe you should. Maybe you should go everywhere with it in your hand.”
While her attacker remains at large, the Salt Lake City woman struggles to get over what happened to her. “I will always feel like I’m not safe,” she says. “That’s my big issue — trying to continue to feel safe in my own house. I will always be looking over my shoulder and checking the back seat of my truck and always trying to second guess where somebody could be hiding.”
Most women live in fear of incidents like this. We feel at risk because we are. We know the statistics. By some estimates one out of four women will be the victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. Each year women report almost half a million rapes and sexual assaults, according to the most recent U.S. Justice Department survey. In family-oriented Utah, a state perceived as a safe place, more than 4,000 rapes were reported last year. During one weekend alone, the Salt Lake City-based Utah Rape Recovery Center saw 29 victims.
While overall crime has decreased in Utah in recent years, reports of rape and sexual assault are on the rise, giving the state one of the highest per-capita rates of rape in the country, ahead of New York, Washington D.C. and California. It’s difficult to know, however, if rape is increasing, or if the crime is being reported more. Women who have been brutalized are more likely to report a rape than women who don’t show outward physical signs of the attack. The majority of rapes, particularly acquaintance rapes, still go unreported. By most reports, three-fourths of rapes are committed by a man the woman knows — a fact society is not willing to accept.
“We want to feel safe so we want to believe that rapists have a particular profile in terms of they’re easy to identify — they wear trench coats, they live under the viaduct or hang out in vacant buildings and have crazed looks in their eyes,” says Abby Maestas, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center. “And that’s not true. What we have found through the clients that are served at the Rape Recovery Center and through studies, is that a rapist can be anyone — a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a neighbor, a brother, a son.”
C.Y. Roby, executive director of Intermountain Specialized Abuse Treatment Center, agrees. “We have a tendency to look on it and say, well in order to keep safe, what I need to do is stay out of the park at night, stay out of the dark alleys at night and I won’t end up being raped. And yet, the vast majority of rapists are known to the victim.”
Diana met her boyfriend in college. He was handsome, charming, and funny. He seemed like he had it all together. Then she began to see another side of her boyfriend. He would become angry and then he’d become violent. After two years, Diana told him she didn’t want to see him anymore. He became obsessive, following her everywhere she went, registering for her classes, and taking a job where she worked. The stalking went on for 10 months, but no one thought much of it.
Then one night as she was writing a letter, she turned around to find him staring at her. “I screamed because the look on his face scared me so much,” she recalls. “He had a knife in his hand, and he cornered me, put his arms around me, put the knife up to my neck — it was an eight-inch hunting knife — and he said if I screamed again, he was gonna kill me.”
During the attack, Dianna tried to stay detached. “I felt like if I didn’t stay calm that he would kill me. That I just was better off going along with whatever he said and did and that way it would be over with. If I would have fought, I think I would have been killed. I always thought of myself as physically fit, as a strong person. I’m 5’9″ and weigh 140 pounds, but he threw me around like I was a paper doll. I felt like the only thing I could do was just try to block blows. I felt very small and insignificant and weak. He had so much rage and anger that I couldn’t do anything to match it.”
Dianna’s rapist escaped through a window when he heard her roommate come home. When police arrived, they warned her she could be killed the next time. Fearing for her life, she dropped out of college and completely broke her routine. She pressed charges, but regrets she didn’t push for a harsher sentence. Her rapist was only placed on probation. “I couldn’t go anywhere without worrying about him popping up from behind a building or from behind a bush,” she says. Just three months after raping Dianna, he was charged with forcible sexual abuse of another woman.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without worrying about him popping up from behind a building or from behind a bush,” she says. Not only did the rape make Dianna feel more vulnerable, she was also hurt by the reaction of others. “The reaction of my landlord was that I who had caused the problems, that he hadn’t had problems until I moved to there, and that he had to fix the door and he was kind of mad at me. The reaction of my neighbor was pretty non-chalant, like maybe I deserved it. I found out when I told other people that the stigma is still very strong.”
We live in a culture where we are taught that we have choices about our lives and that we’re responsible for what happens to us. As feminist author Gloria Steinem says, “If you are beaten, you’re said to have incited it, if you’re raped you’re said to have invited it. We all know that these things run very deep in the culture.”
“From the time a child is very, very small, we’re teaching that they’re responsible for the things that happen in their life both positive and negative,” says C.Y. Roby. “So when a rape situation occurs, usually what I see going through a victim’s mind is what did I do that was wrong.”
It’s not only the victim who blames herself. Society is quick to blame her as well. “Even the innocence of children is questioned,” says Maestas. “Often times I have sat with a police officer or a client and have heard that a four-year-old girl was responsible for seducing her perpetrator who was an adult. Now what are we saying? What we’re saying is that we don’t know how to take responsibility as a society. Therefore, we will continue to blame the victim.”
Rape is a devastating crime. Some women are badly injured. Some become pregnant. Some contract HIV. But the emotional trauma can be worse than any physical injury. Women who are raped have nightmares, panic attacks, waves of self-doubt, an overwhelming sense of distrust. The lives of women who are raped are forever changed. Some say they will never be the same, that it’s like dying. “I know that I will never really recover from this,” says Maggie. “The impact will always be with me and I will never trust the same way and I know I can’t even be tested for HIV for six months. So I have to even keep that in mind. I’ll never be able to get away from this.”
After being raped at a party, one Salt Lake woman spent 18 months in intensive therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. “I managed to continue working for almost a year following the attack, but I was marginally functional,” she says. “Finally I quit my job.” She says she has only recently found the “hope and courage to face both the world and myself.”
Who is most likely to be assaulted or raped? Maestas stresses that rapists choose those who are vulnerable, which is why children and even the elderly are at risk. Her staff has worked with victims of all backgrounds and ages, including a 94-year-old woman who was raped and a three-and-a-half-week-old baby who was sexually abused. Half the victims the staff served in emergency rooms were under 14 years of age.
“I think that anyone is capable of rape and I think frankly that anyone is capable of being a victim,” says C.Y. Roby. “I don’t think that there’s anything you can do to ultimately thwart being victimized, possibly with the exception of locking yourself in a room and you’re the only one with a key.”
Dr. Michael Ghiglieri, an Arizona biologist who has written extensively about male violence, is more specific. He cites a 10-year study looking at more than a million cases of rape in the United States. “It’s unfortunately a huge sample of victims,” he says. “And it turns out that 88 percent of these women are between the ages of 12 to 28. Three quarters of all victims fell between the ages of 18 to 25. So rapists are seeking the women that men everywhere are seeking.”
Dr. Ron Sanchez is a supervising psychologist at the Utah State Prison who works with sex offenders. “From my experience, there’s a wide variety of reasons that sex offenders choose victims. They can range in age from very young to old. There may perhaps be a focus on a particular eye color or hair color or body type. But there is certainly no one female profile they would go after.”
Rapists, notes Sanchez, can be calculating and planning, often stalking their victims. Maggie suspects that the man who raped her had been watching her. “It wasn’t unusual for me all summer to run outside and change the water, so I’ve been very nervous that perhaps it was somebody in the neighborhood that had been stalking me, and knew that I lived alone.”
Sanchez says rapists are often very impulsive. For example, they might see a woman who is alone, such as a motorist stranded on the side of the road, and “seize the opportunity.” “As I’ve worked with rapists, I’ve asked them how do you go about gaining access to houses and many of them said they would look for an open window or unlocked door and just go in the house,” he says. “I was amazed to find out how many houses that they encountered had doors unlocked. So I think a simple thing of locking your doors and windows is a deterrent.”
Locking doors and windows is an easy enough thing. A woman alone instinctively bolts the doors and windows even on a sweltering summer night. For most women, such precautions become second nature. Ask a woman what she does to protect herself and she’ll tick off a list of specifics: never leaving a building without her keys in hand, looking over her shoulder in the parking lot, scanning faces on an elevator, avoiding parking terraces. Yet, despite all the precautions, women can still be at risk. As Maggie reminds, “when you’re at home changing your water, how are you to know you should be watching out?” It’s a reality that makes her and other women resentful. “First of all, it’s evenings that I lost,” she says. “And now it’s like even freedom around my own home. And it seems like we just keep having more and more things that we have to watch out for and more and more freedoms we’re losing just because of our gender. I don’t know where it’s going to end.”
In her book, Sex, Art and American Culture, Camille Paglia calls these “somber truths” women must accept. “Feminism keeps saying the sexes are the same,” she writes. “It keeps telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything, wear anything. No, they can’t. Women will always be in sexual danger.” She may be right, but that doesn’t necessarily make rape a woman’s responsibility.
Gloria Steinem poses the real issue at the heart of the rape dilemma. “We have to stop talking about who gets raped and talk about who rapes. Somebody is doing these things. And we have to identify who they are.” Who is that somebody? Why do men rape women? And how do you stop them?
“The fact is testosterone is a real kick-starter for violence,” offers biologist Ghiglieri. “It’s a kick starter for every male trait, not just violence, it is the responsible hormone for making males. It does affect behavior, it actually forces aggressive behavior. Of course, as humans we do have the choice as individuals whether we are aggressive or not. But the fact is testosterone does affect male attitudes and the propensities to violence.”
Ghiglieri has become convinced that violence is a male tactic. “I think in general if you want to get the simplest perspective on it, male use violence to control females and they do it very often and they control those females for sexual reasons. It’s done in every species.”
From his work with sex offenders, C. Y. Roby has also seen “a lot of desire to dominate or control others. “To a certain degree, I think it’s something that we’ve learned socially,” he says. “Males often grow up and realize that the way to get what they want is through aggressive means.”
Michael Kimmel is a sociologist at the State University of New York who has received international recognition for his work on men and masculinity. He says violent men often view their actions as revenge or retaliation. “They say, women have power over me because they’re beautiful and sexual and I want them and they elicit that and I feel powerless,” he says. “Just listen for a minute to the way in which we describe women’s beauty and sexuality. We describe it as a violence against us. She is a knock-out, a bomb-shell, dressed to kill, a femme fatale, stunning, ravishing. I mean all of these are words of violence against us. It’s like, wow, she knocked me out. So the violence then, or the aggression or the sexual violence is often a way to retaliate.”
Philip is a 29-year-old man even prison workers at the Utah State Prison say is a charmer. He is serving time for sexually abusing his step-daughter. He says anger over a divorce led to his crime. “I wasn’t thinking about her whatsoever, just she was there,” he says. “Somebody to vent my anger, my frustrations, and my anxieties and pain. I didn’t think about her, and if you ask the majority of people who are here on this same crime, they would tell you probably the same thing. They didn’t really think. They just want somebody to vent their anger out on. A lot of people who do sex crimes, do these crimes out of anger. Now sex and anger go hand in hand.”
Roby sees several kinds of sex offenders. Those, like Philip, for whom sexual assault is an extension of rage; those who have a need to control of have power over their victims; and those who derive sexual pleasure out of inflicting pain on others. Many of the rapists he’s worked with also seem to have been motivated by sex. “Most of the individuals that I’ve worked with saw having sex with a woman as basically their final validation of them being a man. So they would decide prior to the time they went out and actually committed the rape that they were going to be sexually involved with some woman,” he says. “The woman no longer really had a choice to make in that kind of relationship, but I don’t think they started out saying what I want to do is to degrade or humiliate some other individual.”
Approximately 25-26 percent of the inmate population at the Utah State Prison are sex offenders. Dr. Ron Sanchez is the supervising psychologist who works with them. “I think sex is part of it. I think it’s a vehicle for their aggression. There again, it’s not just about sex. Many of these individuals, at least on the surface, have relationships with women and are having sex on a regular basis, but for some reason have chosen to go out victimize people in this fashion.”
Since the 1970s when Susan Brownmiller published her ground breaking book, “Against our Will,” rape has been viewed as a crime of control and violence. But Michael Ghiglieri disagrees. He says men may use violence and force as a tool, but what they’re after is sex. “That whole power and control thing as an end in itself is a myth. Power and control is used as an instrument to accomplish a sexual event with an unwilling victim. And to leave out that sexual event is to completely forget what the crime was, which was a copulation was stolen from a woman against her will. To take the motive out of the actual definition is crazy. It essentially places women in a place where they no longer understand the motive of the rapist. It’s an immense disservice to women.”
While some feminists are adamant that rape is not about sex, Jane Caputi, a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, claims it’s specious to separate violence and sex. “I would disagree with some of the early feminists who would say rape is a crime of violence, not a crime of sex. Because, unfortunately, in this culture sex is completely interfused with violence, with notions of dominance and subordination. Our gender roles are constructed so we have these two genders, masculine and feminine, that are defined by one being powerful and one being powerless. So, powerlessness and power themselves become eroticized.”
She points to popular culture, which reflects and perpetuates this intertwining of sex and violence. “It makes it glamourous, it eroticizes that kind of violence against women and makes it appear consensual, as if women seek this out and want it,” she says. “We all know the notorious General Hospital scene where Luke raped Laura and then later married her and so it made it seem as though rape was a kind of courtship ritual. Gone with the Wind is, of course, classic in that we see a scene of marital rape and the woman is made to smile as if seeming to enjoy it.”
The media, biology and culture may be contributing factors, but the majority of men — those who are the product of the same biology, the same culture — don’t rape women. The causes of individual pathology are far more complicated. To understand rape, it’s important to look at the men who rape. According to Ghiglieri, approximately 90 percent of convicted rapists are young men, most of them troubled. Ron Sanchez says sex offenders cut across all racial, economic and social lines. Convicted sex offenders include physicians, truck drivers, utility workers, and teachers, single men and married men with children. Yet Sanchez sees some general patterns. Rapists tend to be antisocial. Many have a mixed criminal history and a pattern of victimizing people. They’re aggressive and have problems controlling their anger. They lack adequate communication skills which contributes to their feelings of rage and frustration. They’re often sensitive to rejection and insecure about their own masculinity. They also have distorted views about women and sex. Most have been sexually deviant since adolescence.
“Many of the rapists have what we call thinking errors or criminal thinking,” where they have a tendency to distort reality,” he says. “For instance, they might interpret the way she responds to them in a very friendly manner by saying “Hi”, they might interpret that as that they’re interested in him, as having sex with him to be blunt.”
One thing universally common to rapists is that they don’t think about what their victim goes through. “As you can imagine, committing that type of crime against another human being requires a tremendous amount of detachment, of dehumanizing that individual,” says Sanchez.
Tony is serving time at the Utah State Prison for sexually abusing his 13-year-old sister-in-law. But he doesn’t think it was rape. “I believe she consented but her boyfriend at the time didn’t like it,” he says. “My mom was a cocktail waitress so I’ve been around females portraying themselves as sex objects. I seen my mom in her skimpy outfits which that was the type of work she chose. After seeing women like that in magazines, on billboards, and casinos wearing hardly anything, you grow up after 23 years pretty much thinking that’s what a lot of these women bring on themselves. They want to be an object. You go to different parts of the country and women don’t want to be recognized that way. So I’m a monster here, but yet I’m normal in Nevada.”
He admits that his victim didn’t deserve what he did to her and calls it a “selfish act on my part,” though he minimizes his crime and its impact. “I can’t put mine in the same category as a violent crime. Mine wasn’t violent. I didn’t break in to do the crime. I didn’t use a weapon to do my crime. I just used the trust I had in my victim. That was my weapon….She’s gettin over it. She’s gotten over it. She’s movin’ on. She’s goin’ to college. She’s doing’ good.”
Getting at the real motives of rapists is difficult since rapists typically do not admit their crimes. They often find excuses, and experts say they don’t always tell the truth. “Rapists rarely want to admit that they raped at all let alone why they might have done it,” says Ghiglieri. “Oftentimes, the only confession of these people comes out during rehabilitation programs that they’re put through in social services. These rapists will learn what they’re supposed to say, which is, ‘I’m a victim of society, we live in a macho society that made me the way I am, women are too attractive, and they’re not available to me, and it’s the woman’s fault,’ and on and on and on.”
So why don’t rapists admit their crime? Ghiglieri says it has to do with a very simple fact — “A man who rapes, among men, is probably the most hated individual that can exist in a male society,” he says. “It’s actually dangerous to admit that you raped anyone. So men don’t admit to rape, even in prison, because of fear of retribution by men who aren’t rapists.”
Most rapists are never caught, and conviction rates for those apprehended are notoriously low. According to Department of Justice statistics, 48 percent of accused rapists were released before trial. Of those tried, only 54 percent were sentenced to prison. Even more troubling is that the average sex offender may commit hundreds of crimes in his lifetime, which means that the vast majority of rapes go undetected and unpunished.
Ron Sanchez says that during therapy, offenders admit crimes they’ve committed as children, teenagers and adults — sometimes disclosing as many as 50 or 60 other crimes, which escalated in seriousness. “Many of them began voyeuring in homes, then eventually escalated to burglaries, even breaking into houses at night while people were sleeping, then escalating to the point of fantasy, fantasies about rape and eventually planning and committing rape.”
According to Sanchez, sex offenders tend to be compulsive and repetitive, the kind of criminals who are hardest to treat. A 1989 study by the American Psychological Association found no evidence that the rate of recidivism for treated offenders was any lower than it was for offenders who received no treatment.
“We need to be realistic about what therapy can do,” he says. “When we talk about treatment, we’re not talking about a disease or an illness that we can cure with an antibiotic or something like that. It boils down to a personal choice.” Treatment, he says, can work well for individuals who are motivated and want to change, but it’s difficult to treat sex offenders who have been abusing women for a number of years or who have multiple deviancies. Still, Sanchez believes therapy for sex offenders if crucial, if for no other reason than to identify who is not likely to change so that they remain separated from society.
If we are really serious about curbing this kind of violence against women, most experts say the punishment for such crimes must be harsh. “If a rapist gets away scott free or gets away with minor punishment, that means rape is a viable sexual strategy for a large number of men. Rape is inevitable if we don’t punish it,” says Ghiglieri.
“Everything we know tells us that they only begin to take it seriously when there are very serious consequences,” insists Steinem.
Michael Kimmel calls it a matter of carrots and sticks. “I think the stick is we need very strong laws with uncompromising enforcement all the way through the legal system so that we make it clear as culture that we won’t stand for this. As a culture we can say the way we try to say around murder for example, or auto theft for example, ‘this is beyond the pale, you cannot do this. We will come down so hard on you, you won’t want to do this.’ O.K. that’s the stick. What’s the carrot? If we as men make it very clear to the women in our lives that we don’t support men’s violence against women, that we are actively opposed to it, that we are willing to confront other men who we see doing aggressive things, then our relationships with women will actually improve.”