Challenging the rape myth

There's a higher probability women will be attacked by someone they know.

By
November 21, 2007 19:18
Challenging the rape myth

rape 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

 
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It's not your classic rape story. A 72-year-old woman attacked in broad daylight, in her own home, by the man she'd hired to fix her refrigerator, but for the victim, Zahava, a former dancer and immigrant from the United States, the outcome is the same as any other sex crime. "I go over it again and again in my head," begins the mother and grandmother, who made aliya as a widow two years ago. "I know that I did not do anything to him. I'd even opened the door for him to leave and he was almost gone. Sometimes I think that if I'd done something different - screamed out or run away - it might not have turned out like this." "He'd come to fix my fridge," begins Zahava, who after seven months of intensive therapy is now strong enough to speak out about what happened to her and, it turns out, to several other English-speaking women in her neighborhood. "I wrote out the check, opened the front door for him to leave and all of a sudden he grabbed me and started kissing me. I said, 'What are you doing? I'm old enough to be your mother!' but he didn't stop. Then I froze, and every trauma that had ever happened in my life came back up to the surface." Zahava's attacker was a 50-something handyman, a jack-of-all-trades, who had come highly recommended and who had been utilized by many other English-speaking families in the neighborhood. "This guy chose new immigrants because we are weaker, because we don't know the language," states Zahava. "He is a known handyman in our area and had done some work at my daughter's house. He'd even been in my house a few times before this, but I'd never been alone with him until that day." After the attack, Zahava says she was in a state of shock. "The crazy part is that he called me afterward to see if I was okay, and that made me even more confused and question my own behavior toward him. "I could not talk about it to anyone for about a week. I thought, I'm a grown woman and I can get over this. But I just could not seem to rise above what had happened however many times I scrubbed the floor and showered. Out on the street, I felt as though I was invisible and even if people bumped into me, I could not feel it. I had no idea that such a thing could be so damaging or leave me feeling so vulnerable." Not being able to move on with her life, Zahava went to her family doctor, who urged her to confront her attacker about what had happened. She even told Zahava that perhaps she had her facts wrong because the man had, after all, been in an elite army unit. "She told me to have it out with him face-to-face, but when I did, he just told me that I had wanted something between us," she says sadly. Zahava then turned to the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, which runs an anonymous hot line for victims of sexual crimes. Professionals at the center took her step by step through the process of lodging a complaint with the police, finding a qualified, English-speaking psychologist and posting a notice on an English-speaking Internet group to see if there were any other women who had been victims of this rapist. Four other women contacted her with similar stories about the same handyman. WHILE ZAHAVA'S self-doubt might lead one to conclude that it's simply a case of her word against his, Noa Harris, director of the Rape Crisis Center in the Sharon region, says firmly that her continual questioning of her own actions is symptomatic of rapes committed by a person known to the victim. "It is a common myth that rapes are committed by random strangers walking down the street," says Harris, whose office has just launched a new campaign to highlight this fact and let victims know that such attacks are definitely not their own fault. "We usually tell our children to be careful of strangers, to not talk to them or go off with them, but the danger sometimes lies in the people that we know." According to statistics collated by the Rape Crisis Center, only 10 percent to 13% of rapists are complete strangers and 32% to 35% are family members, leaving the bulk of rapes committed by a person known, sometimes only tenuously, to the victim. These statistics are backed up by experts at the district attorney's office, which prosecutes most of the rape cases in each locale, and the Israel Police. "Most rapes or sexual attacks are perpetrated by a person known to the victim, that could be a family member, friend, a work colleague or a neighbor," confirms Police Officer Dina Maron of the Crime Victims Department, adding that roughly 4,000 rape files are opened by the police each year and that figure stays fairly constant. "We are talking about anyone that the victim has met before the crime happened," clarifies Harris. "And it is this fact that creates a lot of confusion among the victims, especially for children who are told that they have to be polite or like this person who might have attacked them because he is known to their parents." Furthermore, she explains, rapists do not come from any particular socio-economic group or educational background but are violent people looking to hurt another person who might be weaker than they are. Harris stops short of saying that any man is a potential rapist, preferring to point out that rape is not sexual but about being in control. "It is violence and control over someone who is weaker than themselves, that is why children, women and old people are usually the victims," says Harris, who has a master's degree in human sexology. Along with the myth of the rapist being a stranger, she also says that it is important for society to challenge the perception that the victim is to blame for what has happened, "that she did something to the man to make his hormones go crazy." "Again, this is putting the pressure on the women, making them somehow responsible for what has happened," responds Harris, refusing to give tips as to how women can protect themselves from such attacks. "The real message should be: You can't touch a woman without her permission. If you have been asked to come and fix something in her home that does not automatically mean you are allowed to violate her," she states, adding that part of the solution is to educate children on "healthy sexuality." "Rape can happen to anyone," agrees Janice Hurwitz, a licensed psychotherapist who treats rape victims on a regular basis. "One in six women are sexually harassed at least once in their lives, and most live with a low-grade fear that they might be attacked." She believes that most women will "think twice about going into a lonely place at night for fear of being raped" and states that the phenomenon is not unique to Israel. Of the 30 or so people she is currently treating, Hurwitz points out that only four of them were raped by complete strangers and that most of those who enter her office are attacked by people known to them. "Rapists cannot be told apart from other men. They could be family men, teachers, doctors or even trusted repair men," she says, adding that most plan their crime in advance, casing the location and preparing to come back at a later date. AS FOR providing the victims with closure and bringing the rapists to justice, Hurwitz says that reporting a rape and talking about it can be very healing. "It is an opportunity for them [the victims] to regain power and move on with their lives, especially if they have a helpful and supportive community or family around them," she says, adding that very few rape victims lie about the facts. "The police have come a long way in improving the system for rape victims," says the Rape Crisis Center's Harris, describing several cooperative projects initiated between the center and the police force. "Volunteers from our center are now permitted to accompany rape victims through the investigation process; they are also allowed to ask for a female police officer to question them." However, she continues, the trial process often takes a long time and because the victim is only treated as a witness, she does not always get to tell her side of the story in court. Nick Kaufman of the Jerusalem District Attorney's Office explains that rape cases are prosecuted by state-appointed prosecutors and not the rape victim, but he points out that rape victims are treated very differently from witnesses in other types of crime. "For example, if a rape victim decides that she does not want to testify, I would not, as a general rule, forcibly subpoena her or force her to attend court," he maintains, adding that in other crimes it is common practice to make witnesses testify. Despite the special treatment, Kaufman admits that deciding to prosecute a rape case is not a straightforward process and that not every case referred to them by the police - who claim that all rape cases are passed on to the district attorney's office for consideration - is prosecuted. "Ideally we would require some form of corroborating evidence," he explains, adding that while physical evidence is the most persuasive, "I have taken on some cases based simply on my firm belief that the woman is telling the truth." He also acknowledges that in cases such as Zahava's, where there is no forensic evidence supporting her complaint and there was a delay of a week before she came forward with her story, a rape is harder to prove. "It definitely makes my life more difficult," says Kaufman. "I am required to convince a court that a crime has occurred beyond a reasonable doubt. When the accused argues that the victim consented to the sexual act, the court is faced with the task of deciding which of two conflicting versions to prefer. In these circumstances, it is inevitable, yet undesirable, that the court will expect extrinsic corroborating evidence." As for a conviction in Zahava's case, the judicial system is taking its time to bring her rapist to trial and did not respond The Jerusalem Post's request for an explanation for the delay.

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