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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

ENVISIONING EQUALITY

With Kaethe Morris Hoffer

Kaethe Morris Hoffer, a feminist attorney, explores equality, justice, and the complexities of living in a world in which power is abused and gendered.


The Monster Myth: A Barrier in the Fight Against Rape
©Kaethe Morris Hoffer, 2005

Chicago-a woman who worked for William Kennedy Smith in 1999 has filed a lawsuit alleging that the Kennedy scion raped her five years ago, on the night of her 23rd birthday. According to the complaint, Kennedy Smith compelled his then-personal assistant to come to his home after an evening of heavy drinking with co-workers, and sexually forced himself on her. Kennedy Smith denies the allegations and has pointed out that he and the complainant dated for five months subsequent to the alleged rape.

Her allegations about what William Kennedy Smith did, and his about her, epitomize what scientific research has revealed is true of sexual assault generally. Ironically, Kennedy Smith supporters are citing the very circumstances of this case that typify rape, as reasons to disbelieve his accuser.

Asked about the recent allegations, Chicago's own Mayor Daley said that he liked William Kennedy Smith, admired him for doing important work, and repeatedly observed that Kennedy Smith was a "well-respected" man. Daley also relied on his history as a prosecutor to bolster his opinion that the sexual assault claim was suspicious because the complainant had not made her accusation until five years after the fact. While Mayor Daley's comments embodied his gift for articulating widely held views, he did a major disservice to the public by promoting many common myths about rape.

When it comes to rape, truth is often stranger-and harder to accept-than fiction. And despite the discomfort it is likely to arouse, people owe it to themselves-or perhaps to their sisters, wives, daughters, and mothers-to consider the Kennedy Smith case, and Mayor Daley's comments about it, in the context of what science tells us about rape in the United States.

First of all, Daley implied that Kennedy Smith's likable-ness and status as a "respected" man stand in opposition to the allegations made against him. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, however, 24% of American women are physically or sexually assaulted at least once by a man they have a relationship with (usually a current or former boyfriend or husband.) The clear implication of this, given that women do not all date the same man, is that a significant minority of men engage in private acts of aggression and domination over women. As women mostly seek out well-regarded men, and avoid those who are clearly identifiable as rapists and batterers, it is absurd to posit that being liked or respected is evidence that a man would not or did not violate a woman in private. In other words, the intimate harming of every fourth woman in America is not being done by a tiny subset of particularly unlikable, obviously violent men. To suggest that you will only find rape where you can clearly see a monster, is to obscure the extent and problem of intimate violence in our country, and drive victims deeper into their silences.

Contrary to the myth promulgated by Daley, rape is engaged in by men who are otherwise kind, funny, likable, and respected by their peers. It is such positive attributes that induce girls and women in the first place to date, work for, take a ride home or share a drink with, the men who end up raping them. Just think about it-if it was as easy as Mayor Daley implies to distinguish the men who assault girls and women, from the majority of men who never engage in such abuse, then the statistics on intimate violence would be radically different from what they are. As it is, and despite the clear evidence that rape is mostly done by men who are appealing enough to secure dates, and girlfriends, and wives, people still insist on acting like the attractive attributes that William Kennedy Smith embodies would not exist in a man who had also engaged in rape.

The attractive qualities of men who rape don't just confound the ability of bystanders to believe that rape has occurred when it is reported. Rather, their positive attributes-the ways in which they are kind, funny, generous, or loving-also cause enormous difficulties for the women they harm. Rape survivors, no less than anyone else, are likely to have believed that only "horrible" men are capable of rape, and being confronted with the lie of that myth through forced sex does not immediately make them able to say that men can be attractive and funny and kind and generous and engage in rape. "I can't believe he would rape anyone" is not just a sentence victims fear hearing from other people-it is a sentiment they know intimately. It is usually, in fact, a sentiment they held about the man who raped them. Frequently, rape survivors endure an agonizing battle with self-doubt, as the conflict between their experience, and their belief that "he wouldn't rape anyone" leads them to wonder if what happened actually did happen.

The internal pressure on survivors to re-characterize what was done to them is increased when a survivor works or shares a social circle with her rapist. In such circumstances, victims frequently fear that rape allegations will throw their entire community into upheaval, and will jeopardize everything they value and depend on, from friendships to paychecks. Additionally, when a rapist commands affection and respect, or doesn't fit common (frequently racist) stereotypes about rapists, hostile incredulity is the common response to women who say they have been raped. While the death threats that were made against the woman who identified Kobe Bryant as a rapist may not be typical, they correspond to the general sentiment most rape victims fear confronting should they go to the police.

For all these reasons, many raped women put a great deal of time and energy into trying to convince themselves that they were not raped, even when sex was forced on them. Sometimes they do this by calling what happened something other than rape-bad sex, or 'rough' sex-anything that will allow them to identify the trauma they are going through as something different than the aftermath of rape. Sometimes they do this by trying to forget what happened altogether. Occasionally their efforts to deny they were raped take them through continued involvement, and even consensual sex, with their rapist. Although it is disconcerting, some women choose to have sex with a man who earlier ignored their efforts to prevent it. Often described as a way that survivors try to regain a sense of control over their lives, it is similar to the "You can't fire me, I quit" scenario: "I'm not being forced-I'm choosing this." In any event, after learning the hard way that no is not an option, some people choose to say yes. For a while.

Ultimately, most survivors of non-stranger rape find the strength to accept that they were indeed raped by men who they liked and trusted-despite what our culture teaches about the incompatibility of "nice men" and rape. But the struggle to come to grips with their lived experience in the face of everything they had previously believed about rape and rapists, is tremendously difficult and time-consuming, and the overwhelming majority of rape victims never-let alone quickly-report their rapist to the criminal justice system.

This last fact, that the majority of rape victims never report being raped to the police or prosecutors, has been widely reported for at least the last fifteen years. It is, therefore, particularly shameful that Mayor Daley referred to the absence of a police report as reason to consider the current allegations against Kennedy Smith "suspicious." Once again, his comments played on, and advanced, a rape myth that burdens victims: the myth that victims of "real" rape quickly and fearlessly report their rape to the criminal justice system. In reality, it takes a great deal of effort and a significant amount of time for most rape survivors to come to terms with what was done to them, let alone to consider going public with their rape by contacting the police. And more acutely than all of us, rape victims know that delay in reporting is used to discredit survivors. Thus a myth turns reality on its head, and plays a key role in keeping women silent long after their struggle to admit they were raped.

By accepting so blindly the myth that rape is engaged in by men who are obviously monsters, as well as the myth that true rape victims go to the police-quickly, our society does enormous harm to women who are raped. We also do no favors to men in our society, the majority of whom, it should be remembered, never force sex on the women they are intimate with. Indeed, by supporting the myths about rape that blind us to its realities, we give men who commit rape no incentive to change their behaviors. And perhaps more importantly, the ways in which rapists are truly different from the majority of men continue to be obscured and undervalued.

Kennedy Smith has said that he is particularly vulnerable to false allegations of rape, because of his family and his personal history. The personal history he is likely referring to is the 1991 criminal case against him for rape (he was acquitted), and published reports that three other women were prepared to testify in that trial about his sexual assaults on them. His spin on this history is that it makes him a target for lies about sexual violence, but it makes more sense to see him as someone about whom rape allegations are not believed-even when they are put forward by multiple women. Also, people who have worked with Kennedy Smith since 1991 have surely regarded him as the innocent victim of false claims, because the alternative-believing him guilty of getting away with multiple rapes-would likely cause significant discomfort for co-workers and employees. The experience of actively believing he "wouldn't" or "couldn't" commit rape, and the experience of thinking other women were liars for accusing him of sexual assault, is one that would make it more difficult, not less, for any person to accuse him of sexual assault. The exceptionally powerful, and exceptionally successful, group of people willing to rally to his defense is also not likely to be overlooked by anyone contemplating accusing him of rape. In other words, Daley's defense of Kennedy Smith, while inappropriate and troublesome, was not surprising.

I do not know the woman who is suing William Kennedy Smith, and I am not attempting to speak for her. I am, however, struck by the ways in which the reported allegations conform to what is generally true of sexual assault in our country. I am also struck-and appalled-by the ways in which facts that are characteristic of rape are still being used to discredit victims. It is long past time for our society to disavow the myths about rape that may keep us comfortable-as long as we are not raped-but which to do nothing to further justice, and which do everything to keep raped girls and women silent and hurting.


Kaethe Morris Hoffer
morrishoffer@ameritech.net

 

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Kaethe is an attorney from Evanston, Illinois. She served on the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois from 1999 to 2003, where she chaired the Commission's Violence Reduction Working Group. She is co-author of the Gender Violence Act.

 

 

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