Saturday, May 26, 2018
Politics

Amid political grandstanding, the victims of rape get lost

A U.S. Senate candidate from Missouri says something foolish about rape, and suddenly everyone has a role to play.

If you are a Democrat, you pretend to be shocked and outraged. If you are a Republican, you are required to act solemn and disappointed. Even those on the sidelines are encouraged to turn the emotional volume to full blast.

But what do you do if you are a victim of rape?

How do you react when the worst event of your life is turned into political fodder? How are you to respond when everyone is shouting and no one is listening?

"The victims are getting lost," said Marilyn Bray, a rape survivor and the outreach and empowerment coordinator at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. "It's this kind of thing that keeps them silent and suffering.

"I felt so much sadness and was so disheartened when I first heard about his comments, because that's exactly the type of thing that convinces rape victims to not ask for help out of fear that they'll be judged, or not listened to, or not believed."

For the record, Rep. Todd Akin has already apologized. During a weekend TV interview, Akin, a Republican, was asked if he would support abortions for rape victims, and he suggested "legitimate rape" rarely led to pregnancy.

To be clear, the issue is not Akin's stance on abortion. It is his elusive grasp of biology, and the insinuation that rape is committed only by masked men in back alleys.

The reality is more than 70 percent of sexual assaults are committed by nonstrangers, and about 60 percent of rapes occur inside the victim's home or at a friend's home, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Because so many rapes are committed by acquaintances — and because perpetrators often claim the sex was consensual — less than one in 10 rapes is prosecuted and only about one in 20 leads to a conviction.

Odds such as that often lead victims to drop charges or never report a sexual assault in the first place. And that leads to Akin's skepticism about "legitimate rape."

"The concern is that for every person who says something like that out loud, you have to wonder how many people are thinking the same thing privately," said Laurie Elbow, the senior manager for outpatient services at the Suncoast Center.

In a perfect world, Akin's comments would lead to a better understanding of the crime and a greater empathy for survivors.

Unfortunately, the conversation was hijacked. Democrats saw it as a way to regain advantage in a critical Senate race. Republicans feared it would have an impact on the presidential race and distanced themselves.

Meanwhile, the furor had nothing to do with a crime that is physically, mentally and emotionally crushing.

The best solution for victims is to seek help, but the stigma surrounding rape and the misperceptions perpetrated by people like Akin continue to make it one of the most underreported crimes.

"We don't understand rape, we're not comfortable talking about rape," said Bray. "We're doing a disservice to ourselves and to each other by not being educated and not being informed about sexual assaults.

"Think about the language we use when we say things like 'cry rape.' We're too afraid of what other people will say. Will anyone believe me? Will they think this was a 'legitimate' rape?"

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