Rape is essentially an act of power and dominance. Although an estimated 15 to 40 percent of American women are victims of rape or attempted rape, men are raped as well. Women are more likely to be raped by someone they know; between 50 and 70 percent of all rapes occur within the context of a romantic relationship, and more than half the time the assault takes place in the victim’s home.
Rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States, due to the victim’s fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or retaliation by the rapist. Estimates of the percentage of rapes reported to authorities range from 10 to 50 percent. Because of the difficulty of obtaining a conviction, about two percent of all rapists are convicted, and most serve approximately half of their original sentence.
A survey conducted in 1987 found that 57 percent of women who have been raped develop post-traumatic stress disorder. These women may lose their appetite, become easily startled, and suffer from headaches, sleep disorders, or fatigue. Many women have difficulty maintaining a normal life following a rape, and may repress the experience for an extended period before they are able to talk about it.
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Over the past 20 years feminist organizations have fought successfully to change public attitudes toward rape as well as treatment of rape victims. Efforts have been made to increase the sensitivity of police and hospital personnel to rape victims through special training programs. Today, women police officers routinely investigate rape cases.
Rape crisis centers in local communities throughout the nation counsel rape victims and perform other services, such as instruction on rape prevention, providing hotline services and legal advice, and supplying hospital emergency room advocates to offer emotional support to victims and assure that they are treated fairly by physicians and the police.
Despite these and other advances in combating rape, it remains a difficult crime to prosecute. Traditionally, rape victims have been questioned about their sexual histories, although most states now place restrictions on the admissibility and usage of such information at trial.
In some states, evidence by witnesses or proof of bodily injury to the victim are still required; in other states, a struggle between the woman and her attacker must be proven. Most states require physical evidence of recent sexual intercourse in which the victim most undergo a medical examination within 24 hours of the assault.
In recent years, increased attention has been focused on “date” or “acquaintance” rape, a widespread phenomena that is particularly insidious because women who are victimized in this way are more likely to blame themselves and are less likely to seek help or prosecute their attackers.
A 1987 study of acquaintance rape at 32 college campuses sponsored by Ms. magazine found that one in four women surveyed were victims of rape or attempted rape, that most rape victims knew their attackers, and over half the assaults were date rapes. Only 27 percent of the women identified themselves as rape victims, and five percent reported the rapes to police.
Of the acquaintance rape victims in the Ms. magazine survey, 38 percent were between 14 and 17 years old. Rape can be particularly devastating for adolescents; the damage it inflicts on the victim’s sense of personal integrity interferes with the fragile personal identity and sense of selfesteem that are being forged during this period.
It also upsets the adolescent’s need to assert some control over her environment. Young rape victims, who are often sexually inactive at the time of the attack, may have their ideas and feelings about sex distorted by the experience.
Often, they have daily encounters with their attacker or his friends at school or social events, adding to their sense of shame and humiliation. Most are unlikely to report the rape to parents or other adults, fearing they will be blamed or that their parents may press charges against their own wishes.