Why Society Goes Easy on Rapists

Slate Magazine

May 30, 2019

By Lili Loofbourow

I started compiling a list of sexual assailants who got no prison time almost by accident. Twitter makes it easy: You stumble across a case where a man in Anchorage, Alaska, spent no time behind bars for strangling to unconsciousness a woman he masturbated on. You tweet it. Then you read about the Texas doctor who went free after assaulting a patient while she was sedated. You note similarities. Then you read about the high school girl who reported her rape immediately, to no avail—police never even spoke to the alleged attackers. You tack one story like this onto the other, you thread them, and suddenly you have a string of anecdotes that, without much system or method, seems to describe an America disinclined to punish sexual assault. It’s a list that leaves most people who read it terribly angry, including me.

But—and this is maybe the surprising thing—that anger started bugging me. Not because anger isn’t warranted, but because my list a) inflames it and b) seems to imply that the solutions are simple and obvious when they aren’t. Worse still, there’s something almost involuntary about the response: It’s hard not to rage at this collection of facts I’ve strung together. Especially if they’re taken in conjunction with the ongoing evidence of our broken criminal justice system. It’s just so easy to make comparisons: A rapist got no jail time, but a homeless man was sentenced to three to six years for attempting to buy toothpaste and food with a counterfeit $20 bill. Sit back and watch the retweets flow.

The trouble with the anger that a thread like mine provokes—which is ostensibly just pointing out the ways we fail to punish rape—is that it twists all too easily into a call for more punishment. Lists have a rhetoric. They tend asymptotically toward specific arguments, and the implication of mine gave me pause. We know what lies down that road because we’ve tried it: Stricter sentencing guidelines, for instance, always hit minorities and disadvantaged people first and hardest. If anger is an engine, the risk is always that even with good intentions it will power bad outcomes—especially when that anger feels justified by facts. My list represents a set of perfectly true facts. But it gives the impression that those facts are all you need to know about how our society deals with sexual crimes. The thread isn’t properly contextualized. It’s just a string of rage-inducing anecdotes, a random compilation of upsetting incidents that came to my attention precisely because they were scandalous. On its own, in other words, the list isn’t proof of anything.

But when it comes to sexual assault, ditching emotion and sticking to facts isn’t as easy as it sounds, for the simple reason that feelings have already clouded what we can know. Sympathy and suspicion—for suspects and victims, respectively—factor powerfully into every aspect of how law enforcement deals with sexual crimes, fogging up the numbers or erasing them altogether. When you look for facts, what you find is that the few we have are woefully insufficient. Sexual assault is massively underreported, and even when victims come forward, convictions are rare. According to RAINN, only 5 out of every 1,000 rapes committed—that’s 0.5 percent—ends in a felony conviction. The Washington Post puts the figure at 7 out of 1,000, but pretty much everyone agrees it’s under 1 percent. We usually try to make sense of this painfully low number by noting that many rapes aren’t reported, which is true, but the crime is also notoriously under-investigated.

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