© Kaethe Morris Hoffer 2010
Kaethe Morris is the Legal Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
(*This is a speech given at the University of Chicago’s “Take Back the Night” Rally April 29, 2010.)
Your presence here is love made visible. By standing here you demonstrate concern for those who have been, or are going to be, sexually assaulted. The steps you walk, the words you say, the time you give to talk about, and to oppose, sexual assault, are acts of compassion for victims, and acts of defiance against a culture that continues to deny, to silence, and simultaneously to encourage, the sexual use and abuse of girls and women (and sometimes boys and men) for the pleasure and benefit of people—mostly men—who insist on using their talents to engineer situations in which they can, and do, engage in acts of sexual violation while she (or sometimes he) lies there, or leans there, or is propped up, sometimes inert, sometimes passed out or passing in and out of consciousness, sometimes crying, sometimes resisting, sometimes saying no once, sometimes saying no repeatedly, sometimes whispering opposition quietly, sometimes screaming loudly.
The crux of the problem, as everyone here surely already understands, is threefold: First, there are people, mostly men, who engage in acts of sexual intimacy that are not wanted, that are not asked for, acts for which they do not have consent; Second, and while always insisting that even one raped child or adult is too many, there are way too many men who do this, and way too many girls and women (and boys and men) who are on the receiving end of bodily invasions that leave them feeling forever marked as someone to whom sexual violence can be done with impunity; Third, and crucially, the systems that exist in our communities, which are supposed to deter, to prevent, and to punish acts of sexual violation are so ineffective, so untrustworthy, so backwards, so hostile to seeing and opposing rape as it actually happens, that the overwhelming majority of victims of rape never even report being raped.
In 2010, thanks to girls and women (and some boys and men) who came before us and fought for laws and social change, who endured derision and disrespect, name-calling and physical violence, massive amounts of research has been done and continues to be done on sexual assault, and the criminal law of every state in this country says that it is unlawful for one person—even if married to their victim—to obtain sex from another without consent. But in 2010, thanks to denial, or laziness, or misogyny, or the simple enduring power of tradition and the status quo, the criminal law is being divested of its power to deter or punish sexual assault by a society which continues to treat women—perhaps not intentionally, but certainly in effect—as second-class citizens. Our complaints of rape are now worthy of being recorded by researchers, and sometimes by police, but to the extent that women who are raped in ways that are typical of rape seek to have their rapists investigated or punished, mostly what they discover is a system that is unwilling or unable to stand with them in exposing and punishing their perpetrator.
In Cook County, Illinois, where I practice law, where I listen to and stand with survivors of sexual assault, I hear time and time again that prosecutors in Chicago—the women and men whose job it is to enforce the criminal laws of this state—will not charge a man who is known to his victim with sexual assault unless they have “corroborative evidence” like contemporaneous third-party witness testimony, serious bodily injury, or offender confession. To be clear—what I see, and hear, and was specifically told by a Cook County sex crimes prosecutor, is that it is the policy of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office to refuse to authorize felony sexual assault charges against a man unless the rape was witnessed by someone else, or it was so violent as to leave her with visible bodily injuries, or he was so stupid as to admit that he did not have her consent to do what he did. Now, to be clear, I should also say that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office officially denies that this is their policy. In fact, they claim that they are willing to prosecute rape even when the “only” evidence they have of it is the testimony of the victim herself. But while scientific research has made many realities of rape incontrovertible, I have yet to see any evidence that local prosecutors are willing to prosecute rape as it mostly occurs.
In the same way that science has established that human behavior has an impact on the global climate (and in the same way that there continue to be people who lie about the problem) there are many things that have now been established as true regarding rape. The first thing that we know is that rape is not rare. In fact, the research suggests that any time you are with more than five women, you are likely sharing space with a women who has been, or will be, subjected to forcible sex. Other things that we know about rape are these: it is mostly committed by boys and men who are known to their victims; it mostly leaves its victims harmed and wounded but lacking serious or visible ‘bodily’ injury; it mostly happens in private; it mostly is committed by men who insist—and perhaps genuinely believe—that they did nothing wrong; it mostly occurs within, and not across, socio-economic, racial, and ethnic lines. Fundamentally, any person who is reasonably well educated about rape will recognize that the bulk of what passes as conventional wisdom about rape is wrong, it is frequently racist and classist, and it fundamentally impairs the ability of most well-meaning people to believe women in the aftermath of rape victims—because girls and women who have been raped usually report experiences that contradict everything our culture still wants us to believe about sexual assault.
And of course, girls and women who experience rape are frequently the first people to doubt themselves. They learn the hard way that rapists don’t look like homeless men, they look like the hottie from math class. They learn the hard way that it is romantic dates, and not dark alleys, that make them vulnerable to rape. They learn the hard way that it is classmates bearing six-packs, and not strangers bearing guns, who target them for rape. They learn the hard way that their response to forced sex is to freeze or cry, rather than fight or attack. While science does reveal that some women falsely claim to have been raped—just as (and no more frequently than) some people make false claims about being mugged, or file fraudulent insurance claims, or engage in other acts of deception, the truth about lies in the context of rape is that the most common lie about rape is that it didn’t occur. Mostly, when women lie about being raped, it is the lie they begin telling themselves while the rape is going on. It is “this isn’t happening” “this can’t be happening” “I’m not being raped” “I can’t have been raped” “he wouldn’t rape me” “he can’t be raping me” “he didn’t rape me….did he?”
And while rape teaches its victims the hard way the truth about rape, too many people who have not been raped continue to cling to outdated myths about rape—just like people who deny global warming—because the realities of rape are far more disturbing than the falsehoods they have grown up with.
So those of you who are here, who either know about rape because you have survived it, or because you have opened your eyes and your ears and your hearts and your minds to everything about it that is knowable, have in front of you the following task: You must insist that the realities of rape are acknowledged—even though the reality is much more unpleasant that the fiction. You must insist that rape as it happens is prosecuted—even though rape as it happens is much harder to prosecute than rape as it is imagined. You must resist, with every skill that you have, all of the lies about rape that continue to be promulgated and nurtured and supported in our culture.
Because you are here, I know that you have already resisted most of what our culture wants us to believe about rape. Because you are here you have already rejected the lie that rape is rare. You have probably rejected the lie that it is being dealt with properly or well by the criminal justice system. And I hope you have rejected one of the worst lies of all—the lie that rape is inevitable, that it is a problem that can not be eradicated.
Because while research confirms what women tell us about the men who do rape, research and women also reveal this: MOST men never commit rape. Think about it. The overwhelming majority of men never, that means not once, have sex with someone who is not a willing partner. And here is another thing that we know: most men who do engage in rape—while they frequently rape many more than one woman in their life—actually spend most of their time not raping. Like most men, they go to school, they go to work, they eat dinner, they work out, they even interact with women—all while not raping. They even, frequently, have sex that is the result of mutual desire and consent. In other words, they demonstrate a clear ability to refrain from engaging in rape.
So if most men can refrain from engaging in rape for all of their lives, and if men who do like to rape are capable of refraining from rape for most of the hours of their day, and most of the days of their week, then rape can be refrained from. And if it can be refrained from, it doesn’t have to happen. It is not inevitable. Currently, rape happens because there are men who like to rape, and they rape when they think they can get away with it. And everything our culture continues to pretend about rape helps them get away with it. And most of the systems that are in place to stop them or punish them aren’t doing what they can or they should to respond to them. So as you continue to work to reveal the truth and destroy the lies about rape that nurture its existence in our culture, keep this truth at the center—rape is not inevitable. We can take back the night. We can take back the day. We can, and together, we will.