America is failing rape victims

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. September 4. I was in my front garden, 41 steps from my front door. I would later count it out, more than once. 

After I turned my back on the man who had just exchanged casual pleasantries with me as he walked by, it was only seconds before he grabbed me. As he locked my arms behind me and shoved me forward, he told me that if I screamed, he would kill me. He dragged me into my neighbor’s secluded yard. The shape of my body would be pressed into the ivy there like one of those chalk outlines in a crime show until the first snow covered it.

Every day I would see that outline from my porch.

Women rarely talk about the particulars of rape violence. The self-silencing of rape survivors is part of the blame placed on victims.

Details matter.

I was beaten and bitten, sodomized and raped. The injuries I sustained were “catastrophic,” according to the doctor who treated me. She likened it to an attack by a wild animal. 

When I called the Philadelphia rape crisis center, where I had been a volunteer in college, for help and advice, I was told sternly that if I didn’t report, other women could be raped and it would be my fault.

Two male officers came to my house when I called the police. I was driven in the back of a locked police car like a perpetrator, not a victim, to the Special Victims Unit. I was not allowed to have either my wife nor my best friend, a social worker who heads a domestic violence agency, with me as I gave my report. I had to give it four times. Over hours. This is, I was told, standard.  

The first thing the detective said to me was, “If you are lying, we will prosecute you.” He told me women were always trying to get back at their boyfriends by claiming they were raped. I was afraid to tell him I was a lesbian.  

Yet false reports are minuscule and fewer than in any other felony. According to the FBI, men actually make more false allegations of non-sexual assault than women do rape.

The man who raped me was never caught — let alone arrested or convicted. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2019, the most recent data available, 995 rapists out of every 1,000 rapes reported to police will remain free.

Later, hours later, after the detective saw the extent of my injuries when he photographed me, naked, from every angle — the bites around my nipples, the bruises the size of dinner plates on my thighs, the huge bruises on my back and buttocks, the fingerprints on my arms, the hair torn out from the back of my neck — he was gentler, telling me he had two daughters.  

The next day I met with the sketch artist at Philadelphia police headquarters. I had to look through dozens of photographs to see if the man who raped me — a serial rapist who preyed on women during his lunch hour — was among them.

He was not. The sketch artist drew a good likeness and gave me a copy. We xeroxed it and put it up all over the neighborhood: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS RAPIST? HE ATTACKS WOMEN AT LUNCH TIME.

Men rape women — straight, lesbian, bisexual, trans — in the U.S. every day. One in five women is a rape victim. There are more than 23 million women rape victim/survivors in the U.S. right now, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

Serial rapists are not anomalous, yet are rarely caught and convicted. Bill Cosby was accused of more than 70 rapes over more than a half-century, yet wasn’t tried and convicted until 2018 at the age of 81 and was recently released from prison. Donald Trump was accused of rape by several women, as I wrote here in 2019.

A woman is raped every 92 seconds in the U.S., yet rape is the least prosecuted of all violent crimes, with only about 0.7 percent of rapes and attempted rapes ending with a felony conviction for the perpetrator, according to analysis of DOJ statistics of the past five years. Only five out of every 1,000 rapes results in conviction.

Rape doesn’t end with the act itself. At the worst time in your life, you have to think and act: Should you call the police? Take a shower? Tell someone? Pretend nothing happened? 

Many victims — especially queer and trans victims — choose the latter. According to a 2016 DOJ analysis of violent crime, a staggering 80 percent of women don’t report. According to the DOJ report, more than 20 percent of victims feared retaliation from the perpetrator, and 20 percent feared retaliation from society. Thirteen percent said they did not believe police would help them. Worst of all, eight percent said they didn’t think their rape was important enough to report because they had been told it wasn’t a “real” crime.

We talk about rape a lot, but we’re not more educated about it. We don’t even know who gets raped or that being raped once makes you susceptible for being raped again. Corrective rape of lesbians is a common hate crime. Trans women are frequent targets of sexual violence. Bisexual women report sexual violence occurring more often than heterosexual women.

Education matters and could aid in prosecutions. I couldn’t scream when I was being raped. In fact, this is a common syndrome among rape victims: it’s called involuntary paralysis. Yet failure to scream, cry out, or even whisper “no” is used against victims by the criminal justice system to “prove” they aren’t really victims. 

How many victims or even prosecutors know about involuntary paralysis? My arms were pinned beneath me so I couldn’t move. I was told I would be killed when he was done with me. 

I was tortured. Torture permanently alters the body’s response to pain, and it happens to a high proportion of rape victims. According to the DOJ, nearly all women who are raped — 94 percent — experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the rape. Nine months after the rape, 30 percent of women report symptoms of PTSD. 

A third of women who are raped contemplate suicide, while 13 percent of women who are raped attempt suicide. Additionally, about 70 percent of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe emotional distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime.

Sexual violence affects people of every sexual orientation and gender identity. People who identify as LGBTQ may face different or additional challenges in accessing legal, medical, law enforcement or other resources. They may face disbelief that sexual violence affects LGBTQ people which may make it harder to feel that your story is believed.

It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. Victims/survivors may feel ashamed or worried they’ll be blamed. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the assault did not occur — we all respond to trauma differently. 

“It’s not your fault” and “You didn’t do anything to deserve this” are the best things to say to a victim of sexual assault. Unconditional support is crucial. Rape and sexual assault are isolating events. 

We keep failing rape victims in America with a lack of support for victims, a lack of prosecutions. In the most incarceral country in the world, rapists are almost never jailed. 

One of the most insidious lies rape culture tells is that sexual violence is inevitable. It isn’t. But we all have to commit to ending that violence. Supporting victims/survivors like myself and millions of others is an essential first step. 

WOAR has outreach with the Mazzoni Center for LGBTQ victims of sexual assault (215) 985-3315. RAINN has a 24/7 hotline: 800-656-HOPE.

Newsletter Sign-up
Previous articleRainbow Railroad working to help LGBT Afghans flee country
Next articleCreep of the Week: Scott Lively
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.