Some fear chilling effect on women reporting rapes
Sunday, July 10, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) — When Kristen Bakalar was pulled into a wooded area by a stranger and raped, three weeks after beginning college, she didn’t think twice about reporting it.
It was only on the witness stand, as the 18-year-old was being quizzed about her sex life and about the precise color and length of her pubic hair, that she fully realized just how brutal the experience of bringing her rapist to justice would be.
Bakalar, now 30, doesn’t pretend to know what happened between former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel maid accusing him of attempted rape. But she does know what it’s like to be the accuser in a rape investigation. And she fears that the messy, high-profile case, with its public glare on past faults of the accuser, will have a chilling effect on women reporting rapes.
“I can see victims out there contemplating coming forward, and saying, ‘What’s the point?”’ says Bakalar, whose attacker is serving a 20-year sentence for the rape. “If they’re on the fence, and they see this, instead of taking a step forward they might take a step back.”
Advocacy groups for sexual assault victims, as well as women’s groups like NOW, share that fear.
“This certainly makes it a more challenging environment, both for victims and on the prosecution side,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, of the troubled Strauss-Kahn investigation.
Like Bakalar, Berkowitz doesn’t want to make judgments about the case against Strauss-Kahn, which prosecutors had insisted was strong before backtracking. Now they say they’re reconsidering the case because of lies the accuser has told in the past, though they have not publicly questioned her account of the alleged assault itself.
But, he says, it’s important to look at the broader context of sexual assaults in the United States — not the ones involving famous people, but the ones you never hear about — and the startlingly low percentage that ever get prosecuted to begin with.
According to Department of Justice figures compiled by RAINN, six out of 10 assaults are never reported to police. “Of the 40 percent that are reported, roughly half will never lead to an arrest — and of the cases remaining, many of those won’t lead to prosecution,” Berkowitz said.
“So when you boil it down, 15 out of 16 attackers will never spend a day in prison,” he says.
There IS some good news. RAINN says that over the last 15 years, reporting rates have risen by a third, part of a growing cultural awareness of the seriousness of the crime. States have also lengthened or abolished statutes of limitations on prosecuting rapes, especially when DNA evidence exists.
But whatever the cultural progress, many women — most, in fact — still decide not to report an assault, fearing the shame and embarrassment it might bring, disapproval from family and friends, or simply the ordeal ahead of them. “Many women just want to get on with their lives,” says Berkowitz.
That was certainly the case for Eliina Keitelman. At age 14, she was a freshman in high school, ambitious enough to take biology classes at the local community college in Pittsburg, Calif.
It was there that she was raped by a man with whom she’d chatted on the Internet. He told her he was 28 — in fact, he was 40. They met on campus, talked a bit, then moved to his car to talk because, he said, the air conditioning would make it more comfortable.
“And then he was on top of me,” Keitelman says.
After the assault, she called her father to pick her up but didn’t tell either of her parents what had happened — she was too ashamed. But she told someone at the school, and that person called police. At the hospital, where she had to use a rape kit and was examined seemingly by countless people, she still couldn’t face her parents.
Her high school years were hell: She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and took pills for anxiety, depression and insomnia. Instead of afterschool activities, she spent five afternoons a week in therapy.
And she spent countless hours preparing for her attacker’s federal trial. She says his lawyer contacted her friends, asking about her sex life.
“They were trying to get dirt on me — sex, drugs, alcohol — but I was 14 and had been a virgin. I was squeaky clean!” she says. At the trial, she says, “they were trying to make it look like I had seduced him.” It didn’t work. Her attacker was convicted in just an hour of soliciting a minor over the Internet.
Then prosecutors told her they were ready to pursue the rape charge, a state case. But she was 17, and had given three years of her life to the federal case. “I didn’t want to give him any more,” she says.
While she doesn’t regret that decision — even though her attacker spent only 24 months in prison — Keitelman, now married and living in Virginia, feels it is urgent that women report sexual crimes.
“I think men count on us women to be afraid to report rape,” she says. She’s recently started an Internet project called “Regain Your Voice,” aimed at survivors of sexual assault.
She, too, fears the effects of the Strauss-Kahn case, in which she feels that the accuser is being dragged through the mud in the public eye.
“Why is SHE on trial?” Keitelman asks. “Do bad choices in your past mean you can’t get justice in your future?”
The same question deeply troubles Sonia Ossorio of the National Organization for Women.
“Our culture has no sympathy for a woman we consider to be less than pristine,” says Ossorio, executive director of NOW’s New York City chapter. “We see it play out in our courtrooms — district attorneys don’t indict in cases where there are ‘credibility issues.’ They do credit checks — because apparently a woman with bad credit isn’t a good witness.”
Ossorio says advocates have a grim saying to illustrate the problem — the ideal rape case, they say, is a choir girl, attacked by a stranger leaping from the bushes as she walks home from choir practice. “But rape is an epidemic, and all kinds of people, not just choir girls, get raped,” Ossorio says. “Children, grandmothers, nuns — or prostitutes.”
Advocates like Ossorio were also incensed by another recent high-profile case — the acquittal of two New York City police officers on rape charges. A Manhattan woman they’d been summoned to help after a night of drinking told jurors she awoke to being raped in her bed.
One of the officers, in a secretly recorded conversation with the woman days later, repeatedly denied they had sex but also said “yes” twice when she asked whether he’d used a condom. Jurors acquitted the two officers of all charges except misconduct misdemeanors, and they were fired from the force.
“It’s not the first time a victim has been held accountable for crimes against her because she was incapacitated by alcohol,” says Ossorio.
Bakalar, who was raped 13 years ago, remembers being amazed that even as a college freshman, defense lawyers tried to “paint me as a slut.” They asked her when she’d lost her virginity, how many people she’d slept with, even details about her pubic hair, since one had been found on the defendant.
Being on the stand, she says, was the most vulnerable and exposed she’d ever felt — after the rape.
Which is why she feels it’s “heartbreaking” to watch the accuser in the Strauss-Kahn case, whatever the ultimate disposition of the case.
“They say she lied about things,” she says. “Well, guess what — I lied about things 15 years ago, too. Does that mean I wasn’t raped?
“We all have a past. But that doesn’t mean that what happened to us didn’t happen.”
Berkowitz, of RAINN, says it would be hard to measure a chilling effect on reporting rapes stemming from the recent high-profile cases. It would take months to see anecdotal evidence, years to collect data, and even then the causation would not be crystal clear.
But, he says, he won’t be surprised if it happens.
“We wish every survivor reported, but they don’t,” he says. “And so seeing a high-profile case blow up like this — I am sure it’s not going to make the deliberation process any easier.”
On the Net:
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: http://www.rainn.org