Breaking the silence 

Taking new steps to stop an old crime

Advocates work to remove barriers that keep women quiet about rape

According to those who work with rape victims, there are very few things worse than being sexually assaulted. And in the aftermath -- in the hours, days, weeks and months of coping that follow, as people put their lives back together -- one of the most potentially empowering responses, putting your assailant behind bars, is an avenue rarely pursued.

The reasons for this are obviously many, ranging from profound social codes which continue to hold victims responsible for the crimes committed against them, to the intimate nature of such a violation.

But in a year which has already seen two University of Montana students accused of rape, and in which reports indicate that nearly 250 women said they were assaulted in Missoula, both crisis counselors and lawmakers alike are wondering if victims of this crime might be doing themselves a disservice by keeping quiet and healing privately, avoiding the police and the courts in an effort to retain some semblance of control over their lives.

"I don't know that they would all be filed," Missoula County Attorney Karen Townshend says. "But if the numbers are accurate, and the crimes were reported, at least we'd have a more accurate idea of what's going on."

Townshend goes on to say that such an awareness could lead to a climate, legally and socially, that might make women feel more comfortable about coming forward. But she's not overly optimistic that this sort of change will be forthcoming anytime soon.

Despite the relatively recent passage of "rape shield laws" (such as those which allowed prosecutors to publicly exhume sportscaster Marv Albert's sexual past in the recent, widely-publicized court case, while protecting his accuser from similar treatment) across the country, Townshend notes, a woman's sexual history remains a topic which can be covered in pre-trial interviews and elsewhere.

"Who cares if it's not in front of the jury," she says, "if the whole damn town knows about it."

As a veteran prosecutor, Townshend is familiar with the rules of the game. She led the prosecution against a college student accused of rape a couple of years ago, and found herself trying to defend the victim's reputation in the process.

That case, she says, ended up with the defendant, Michael Johns, being acquitted on two counts of rape, while he pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal endangerment. After a drawn-out series of pre-trial motions, Townshend says, Johns' accusers seemed to feel that they would rather get on with their lives than continue to dredge up the past.

"There's not a lot we can do about delays in the system," she acknowledges, "and victims wind up wishing it was over and not wanting to testify in court."

According to Eliza Donley, who coordinates the University of Montana's Student Assault Recovery Service, the Johns trial helped perpetuate the notion amongst young women that bringing charges would simply result in humiliation.

And while she acknowledges that such mortifying circumstances don't always result, Donley isn't as interested in the legal remedies for victims of rape as she is in a new program she calls "perpetrator prevention" -- a strategy whereby men are made more aware of where boundary lines lie.

Donley says that the gains made in recent years in terms of helping women identify acquaintance or date rape as a crime have been hampered by continued ignorance on the part of potential rapists in the community. A victim herself, Donley says that she realizes miscommunication and confusion can lead young men into a "fuzzy" area where signals about sex, power and prestige get mixed up.

Instead of wondering about whether they are satisfactory lovers, she says, some men need to start thinking about whether they're rapists. Once that starts to happen, Donley says, a more open dialogue can begin surrounding the nature of rape and how it relates to sex.

In the meantime, Donley says, she's working with a team of anti-rape advocates, teaching them the legal and medical procedures that follow the reporting of an assault. Unlike some area health providers, such as Planned Parenthood and St. Patrick Hospital, SARS has no protocol requiring that they contact the police.

Donley says she prefers it this way, because it allows each case to be handled in its own way. Her staff, she notes, knows that they have about three days to have a victim examined, after which time much of the physical evidence that might help corroborate an accusation has left a woman's system.

Rape in the state of Montana, according to Townshend, is based on four standards of consent.

To be raped, she explains, a woman must either be either mentally or physically incapacitated (which can include intoxication), or she can be forced or coerced through the threat of force. An individual below the age of consent can also be raped.

It's up to the prosecutor to show that the rapist knew he was having intercourse without consent, Townshend says, which can be difficult to prove.

This is another issue that some legal professionals have begun to address. According to an article in the Illinois Bar Journal, one possible remedy to this conundrum is to use a "reasonable woman" standard, such as that applied in sexual harassment cases, as a legal yardstick.

In "Rape -- From a Woman's Perspective," Mary Ruffolo Rauch argues that men and women learn to do things so differently that most men fail to understand that discomfort and a lack of desire doesn't usually prompt women to fight off their attackers.

Rauch suggests instead that if courts begin to accept that rape can be defined in part by the psychological experience of believing oneself to be raped, that might alleviate the pressure on women to defend their own conduct.

If that were to happen, she says, it would be a step in reorganizing how society responds to rape, and allow victims to redress the crime against them.

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