Rape Culture

The ways that people, particularly women, are mistreated has gotten a lot of attention in the wake of what many (including me) see as a horrible miscarriage of justice. A former member of the Stanford University swim team, Brock Turner, was found guilty on three felony charges: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, sexual penetration of an intoxicated person, and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. Late last week, he was sentenced to six months in a minimum security facility, called a “camp” on the facility’s website. No surprise, people were outraged. I was too. My FaceBook feed was (and is) covered with stories about the incident, statements by the victim, disgust over the statement by Turner’s father, who argued that 20 minutes of bad behavior shouldn’t negate a lifetime of him being a good boy (where’s the vomit bag?). On one of these posts, somebody I don’t know asked an important, but complicated question. Something that I wanted to explore, but didn’t feel like exploring so openly, making Hitting Bregma the perfect avenue.


So there’s the question, summarized as follows: what do we do about this?

I think it’s a great question, but the first thing I wanted to do was question the premise. Is this, in fact, something that’s deeply rooted in North American culture. Even with no expertise in how these things are counted and measured, I imagine that it’s very complicated to try to compare rates of assaults from one country to another. The data can only include reported assaults, and there’s certainly some problems with that, and the definition of assault is likely inconsistent to begin with. Nevertheless, there are plenty of websites that come up in response to a search for “rank of countries by sexual assault rate.” Unfortunately, the list isn’t consistent. On one list, the United States doesn’t show up in the top 10, but on another, it’s seated squarely at #1.

Feeling uncomfortable with these lists, I turned to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The “data and indicators” section of the website allowed me to gather statistics on “sexual violence.” Using the numbers for “rape,” and per-capita statistics from 2004-2014 (an incomplete table, but the 10-year average helped fill in the missing values), I ranked countries by the 10-year average number of reported incidences of rape per 100,000 people. I initially used “total sexual violence” until I realized that the United States wasn’t included in that list for some reason. This is where some expertise on the background would be helpful. Nevertheless, using these numbers, the United States ends up being 10th highest on the list. The top 10, using this method, are (in order) Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Sweden, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the United States of America.

Country Rapes per 100,000 (10-year average)
 Lesotho 92.1
 Botswana 89.1
 Swaziland 77.6
 Sweden 53.2
 St. Vincent and the Grenadines 46.6
 Suriname 45.6
 Zimbabwe 34.6
 Costa Rica 33.2
 St. Kitts and Nevis 31.8
 United States 30.9

Again, I do not know if there are issues with the validity of this reporting, but it does confirm what other sources reported, that rape is more common in the United States than it is in many other countries. So, I think there is some support for the premise of the poster’s question, even if it is not uniquely a North American problem.

With that premise at least partially supported, I think the real question becomes worth pursuing: what do we do about it? Of course this isn’t an easy question, and the obvious answer is that the people (mostly men) who commit these acts should just stop being assholes, but that’s not a real solution. As I’ve discussed before, I find comfort in trying to understand why things happen (see Please stop confusing explaining and justifying for more on this). One way of approaching this is to figure out which countries have very low levels of rape, and see if we can figure out what’s different about those countries from ours, and see if there is something we can possibly copy in order to improve our situation. This approach has a pretty big problem: finding countries with low levels of rape is not easy. A google search for “countries with lowest sexual assault” returned almost the exact same list as when I searched for “rank of countries by  sexual assault rate” and equally similar to the results of a search for “rank of countries with highest sexual assault rate.” It was list after list of the top-10 countries ranked by high numbers of sexual assaults. Not very helpful. So I turned to the UNODC list again, and looked at the rankings. The county on the bottom of the list is Holy See, followed by (in order from lowest to higher) Egypt, Mozambique, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Yemen, Turkmenistan, Syrian Arab Republic, Myanmar, and Tajikistan. Of course, this list makes me wonder how much are we looking at the rate of rape, or is this just the lack of reporting of rape? The low number of rapes in the UNODC data is inconsistent with information from Human Rights Watch (also see here) that describes high incidence rates of rape.

It started to seem like I was getting nowhere with the international approach, so I thought that maybe there was something to learn by comparing rates of rape within states. Again, this is subject to reporting discrepancies, many rapes go unreported, but maybe there’s something there. A quick search found this story from CNN. A summary of the rape frequency (per 100,000 people) on a state-by-state basis. Here, Alaska has the highest rate of rape, and New Jersey has the lowest.

Rape is underreported nationwide, but Alaska's rate of reported rape is three times the national average.

Much has been written about the rates in Alaska, and opinions seem to range from the lack of law enforcement to the large number of native Alaskans (a group with high rates of alcoholism and “breakdown of the family”). That’s a tough pill to swallow, and feels ickily racist, but that shouldn’t stop us from asking if there is something different about different groups of people that lead to this problem. Still, it seems overly simplistic to me, but I’ll keep an open mind. The hypothesis that it’s a function of Native American (American Indian and Alaska Native) populations is actually consistent with the high rates in South Dakota, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, but it doesn’t fit with the higher-than-normal rates in Michigan and Arkansas, so I’m not sure that’s the most likely explanation, unless, of course, different reasons account for the high rates in different states, which may be true.

The lack of law enforcement also doesn’t sit right with me. I do think that strong law enforcement does a little to deter crime, but I don’t think that it’s a particularly successful strategy. My guess (and maybe I’m giving too much credit here) is that most people don’t commit crimes because they don’t want to do something that they know is wrong or will hurt somebody else. There have certainly been times when I’ve been angry enough that I wanted to punch somebody, and in those instances the fear of going to jail wasn’t what stopped me from acting. It was an ingrained sense that violence does not solve problems, but instead makes them worse. That I would regret looking in the mirror and seeing somebody who lashed out and hurt another human being…even though I was sure that he deserved it.

In the end, I have no answers and my question still stands. I may have scratched the surface a bit, and thought more about ways to explore this (which I’m sure somebody in some sociology or criminal justice department at some university is doing much better than I have), but there is still much to be done.

Perhaps this is just what human beings do. That is a sad answer, perhaps too easy, and certainly not satisfying, but something to consider. Surveys that have looked at rates of rape, meaning how many men are rapists, found that at least 4.5% of US men have committed rape. My guess is that the number is actually quite higher, and that more accurate numbers could be determined with careful examination. A study of rape in other countries, using carefully disguised language to avoid the use of the term “rape,” found that as many as 25% of men have raped a woman in some countries (Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea had the highest number; 40.7% of men had raped at least one woman). Maybe this is just something that human beings do. Does that mean we shouldn’t work to change that? Of course not, but maybe it affects how we go about changing it. Maybe. For now, I’m left answerless, and actually feeling a bit worse about the whole thing than I did when I started this. Ugh.


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