What do we mean when we talk about rape?
A new University of North Dakota study found that 1 in 3 male students said they would force a woman to have sexual intercourse if they thought they could get away with it.
That’s rape, isn’t it? By North Dakota’s definition, forcing anyone to have sexual contact is the legal definition of rape. But researchers didn’t use the word “rape” in the study until later. Instead, they asked 73 college men if they would ever act on intentions to “force a woman to sexual intercourse” if they could escape detection, to which 31.7 percent said yes. When researchers did use the word rape, the numbers dropped to 13.6 percent.
If both numbers seem unbearably high, they are. And they are borne out in other research, most notably that of the United Nations, which in 2013 conducted a rare, global survey of just over 10,000 men because, as the report noted, “rape perpetration is under-researched.” Those findings, too, were astonishing. The prevalence of rape ranged from 6 percent (in Bangladesh) of the population to 41 percent (in Papua New Guinea). Some 16 percent of the men surveyed said they had raped four or more women. Rapes occurred most frequently in cultures where women are generally seen as less-than. Just 23 percent of the men who admitted to rape ever spent time in prison for their crime.
In that study, too, “rape” was not used in the questionnaire. There, too, “force” was the word of choice.
It’s sad that these men admitted to forcing sexual intercourse, but shied away from the word rape. But that is a kind of dangerous semantics played out in officialdom, as well. The Department of Justice only just updated its definition of rape for purposes of data collection three years ago. Prior to that, data collectors relied on a definition from 1927.
The word gets further parsed because what constitutes rape depends on your zip code. The definition of rape varies from state to state, and what has resulted from this patchwork approach is an upside-down world where perpetrators too often remain free, and victims have their lives upended.
A new documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” explores rape culture on campuses and was produced by the same people who brought you “The Invisible War,” which explored rapes in the military. The latter movie was an Academy Award nominee in 2013. Such efforts are incredibly important, because without more understanding of the crime, rape remains one of this country’s least reported crimes. That’s particularly true for college rape. By some estimates, 90 percent of on-campus rapes go unreported.
Beyond the emotional toll that rape takes on individuals and on society, the National Sexual Violence Center estimates that rape costs $151,423 per incident in legal bills, lost productivity, health care bills, and third-party costs such as insurance. That’s roughly $127 billion a year.
Last year, the University of Connecticut paid $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by five women who’d said the school hadn’t acted appropriately after the women – students all – filed claims of sexual assault on campus.
The university denied any wrongdoing, but the school was put on a federal Department of Education list of 55 schools with open sexual violence or harassment investigations. The department’s Office for Civil Rights is entrusted with making sure schools stay within the legal boundaries set by Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.
Those University of North Dakota researchers intend to revisit this topic, with a bigger study. So far, they have said that men who are motivated to rape would do well with personalized prevention programs – but first the men have to admit that “forcible sexual intercourse” is and always will be rape.