The Decriminalisation of Rape: How American Institutions are Failing Victims of Assault
Chanel Miller was 22 years old when she was raped at a Stanford fraternity party. In her newly released memoir, she describes the various ways in which American institutions failed her, following her assault. Media outlets painted her as promiscuous; lawyers in court portrayed her as a liar. After being found guilty, her rapist was sentenced to six months in prison, of which he ended up serving ninety days. The extent of his crimes made him eligible to be imprisoned for up to fourteen years. Miller’s account was supported by both eyewitness testimony and extensive evidence, yet she was still not taken seriously as a victim in the justice system or in the public eye. As deeply unjust as her story is, it is one that is not uncommon.
The American justice system is systematically failing survivors of sexual assault, beginning with its collection of evidence. Reports estimate that up to 200,000 rape kits have been left untested, while hundreds have been destroyed prior to the expiration of the statutes of limitations on them, effectively eliminating any chance those victims had of ever receiving justice. Widespread neglect to test rape kits can be attributed primarily to several factors, including lack of resources and lack of motivation within the law enforcement community. Such a culture leads to questions on the primacy of rape crimes. The dichotomy of treatment by the judicial system, between those who are nonviolent drug users and those who are rapists, reflects that rape is considered to be less of a threat to society than those who suffer from addiction. Furthermore, when the inherent bias present within the law enforcement community results in rape kits not being tested for evidence, it shows that the system is broken and in dire need of repair.
Victims of assault are also degraded in the courtroom. Survivors are frequently summoned to testify, a process that can be both psychologically traumatising and humiliating. While testifying at her rapist’s trial, Miller recounts being asked questions about what she was wearing, her drinking history in college, and whether or not she was sexually active with her boyfriend. Her responses, she describes, were used by the defense to craft a narrative in which her rape was consensual. This is a strategy frequently adopted by defense attorneys in these types of cases. Even in cases where there is a successful prosecution, very few victims will receive justice. For every 1000 rape cases, only 4.6 will ever lead to incarceration. Provided that a defendant is found guilty, it is not uncommon for judges to reduce their sentence time if they knew their victim (the BBC reports that in over 90% of assault cases, the victim knew their attacker).
When compounded, these factors, among others, have come to be known as the ‘decriminalisation of rape’. The severity of rape as a crime is undermined when it is not being fully prosecuted, nor properly investigated. Victims are too often portrayed as being at fault for their assaults. Perhaps the greatest failure of the American system, then, is that it permits rape to occur in the first place. Every time a survivor is put on trial by the public, assault becomes rationalised and excused. Conceivably, if rape is systematically treated as a simple misunderstanding rather than a fundamental violation of autonomy and personhood, it will come to be perceived as just that. The system will become one that enables abusers to continue abusing.
In her statement, read at the 2016 trial, Chanel Miller suggests a solution for this problem: “The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn rape is wrong through trial and error. The consequences of sexual assault needs [sic] to be severe enough … to be preventative.” Thus, it is time to speak candidly about sexual assault and critically of institutions that are not doing enough to protect survivors of assault.
Note from the editor:
Victims of sexual assault can seek support by calling Rape Crisis helplines at 0808 802 9999 in the UK or 800-656-HOPE (4673) in the US.