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Rape: The Victims, Perpetrators And Law Enforcement

News of a horrific gang rape in India prompted protest and outrage. Similar reactions, followed allegations of gang rape by members of the Steubenville High School football team in Ohio. The extreme cases raise question about what we've learned about rapists and why so many cases go unreported.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi last month prompted demonstrations and soul-searching in India. Similar reactions followed allegations of gang rape by members of the Steubenville High School football team in Ohio, earlier last year.

Both cases prompted questions about the role of bystanders and why witnesses, too often, do nothing. But experts also warn us that we need to put these outrageous examples in context and ask questions about what we've learned about rapists, victims; and about why rape so often goes unreported, and why it's so rarely prosecuted.

Obviously, this topic may be difficult, and may not be appropriate for all audiences. If you work in law enforcement or work with rape victims, what's changed in your thinking about rapists and victims? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. It's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an update on a hostage situation in Algeria. But first, the latest research on rape. And joining us are two experts on rape and sexual assault. David Lisak, a forensic consultant, expert on non-stranger rape, and founding board member of oneinsix.org, an organization that serves men who were sexually abused as children; he joined us here in studio 3A. Nice to have you with us.

DAVID LISAK: Thank you.

CONAN: And joining us by phone, from California, is Kim Lonsway, an expert on sexual violence in the criminal justice system, director of research at End Violence Against Women International; and thank you very much for joining us.

KIM LONSWAY: Thank you.

CONAN: And David Lisak, there's been a lot of horrifying news - as we mentioned recently - about gang rape. What do we know about how gang rape differs from rapes by individuals?

LISAK: Well, I think the - probably, the fundamental difference is that whenever human beings get together in groups, their behavior can be amplified in both directions, whether it's positive or negative. And gang rapes, I think, are a pretty blunt and graphic example of how human behavior can be amplified in a very negative direction.

So you generally have one individual, or a couple individuals who are ringleaders; and then you have other individuals who begin to follow along, to participate. And oftentimes, the behavior that they engage in just becomes more and more extreme as they feed off each other.

CONAN: And obviously, the number of men who would engage in sex activity is very small to begin with but nevertheless, I would guess that profile enlarges as you're part of a peer group.

LISAK: Yes. The percentage of men in the population who would engage in this is a very small number - 3, 5, 6 percent; probably in that neighborhood. In a gang rape situation, there are very likely individuals - men who will participate in it, who wouldn't ordinarily. And that expands, of course, the number of men involved.

CONAN: And the other question that people would have, immediately - bystanders? Why is it that people would not say, wait a minute - stop it?

LISAK: Well, you know, social psychologists have been studying this for many years. All of us tend to look towards each other for cues as to how we are to behave. And that can be for both good and bad. And very often, people look around; and if they don't see other people intervening in some kind of positive way, they don't know what to do. They feel reluctant. And that's why bystander education programs are so important - because they train people to look to the inner compass, rather than to look how other people are reacting.

CONAN: And are the motives of gang rape any different from the motives of an individual - which we've been told, for many years now, is much more about power than about sex.

LISAK: Yes. And no, the motives are essentially identical. It's aggression and power and dominance.

CONAN: Let's bring Kim Lonsway into the conversation, as she's with us on the phone from her home in California. And is there - we're talking about the victims now. Is the reaction any different when it's a gang rape or an individual one - do we know?

LONSWAY: I don't think there's research on that, but we could certainly imagine that some of the factors that increase the severity of the response to victimization do include multiple perpetrators. That's certainly something we have seen from prior research. But really, we haven't had research done on these kinds of situations, where it's not just - and I'm referring, now, primarily to Ohio - where it's not just that there's multiple perpetrators but that there's - these many, many bystanders. That is - you know, that may have happened historically, on some level; we don't really know.

But I think most practitioners will tell you, that is a new element; to have all those folks who are standing by and not only, you know, not intervening; but participating in the sense of taking pictures and videos, and all of that - which, you know, how could that not compound the trauma? Because the rape, then, doesn't even stop with the event. The rape goes on and on and on, as it lives on in the social media world.

CONAN: And we've become accustomed to hearing how reliving the case at trial can be traumatic. In this case, it's public.

LONSWAY: And it goes on forever. Even the trial ends. So I think this is the horrible new frontier that we don't understand, but we can imagine - again, knowing how devastating sexual assault victimization is to people, just imagining how these factors amplify it.

CONAN: Is there any typical response to rape? I almost hesitate to say that.

LONSWAY: Right. And the answer is no, of course, except that there are some common behaviors. So not that everyone goes through it in the same process or sequence, or even with the same symptoms, but there are a common constellation of things that one might see. So certainly, some of the common responses over the long-term, in terms of symptomology we might see, are anxiety and depression; symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, if not rising to the level of receiving a diagnosis for that - you know, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, reliving the assault. Those are some of the behaviors that we might see.

And of course, something that makes sexual assault so unique is the element of the self-blame, and the shame; t. That, you know, traumatic experiences will always have an impact, but when one places blame within themselves and the level of shame we see on sexual assault, again, really amplifies that effect over other traumas.

CONAN: David Lisak, do rapists feel that same element of shame and blame?

LISAK: No. And in fact, I've been interviewing rapists for 25 years in research settings and my experience, over and over, is they describe, with a tape recorder running in front of them, sexual behaviors that meet the legal definition of rape, and they have absolutely no sense that these are rapes that they've been committing.

And in part that has to do with their narcissism and to some degree with their anti-social traits. A lot of it has to do with the fact that, frankly, we prosecute so few of these cases that where would they get the idea that these kinds of non-stranger assaults are what we mean by rape?

CONAN: And Kim Lonsway, again, one hesitates to say, typical but victims tend to be picked out because they're vulnerable.

LONSWAY: Well, yeah. If you think - for a moment, put yourself in the mindset of someone who wants to sexually assault or at least sees consent as irrelevant. And who are you going to then target? You're going to look for vulnerability factors and/or you're going to go what you can to increase those vulnerability factors.

And at the same time, you're looking for someone who may not have credibility in society. So that even if they do report what's happened, that they won't be taken seriously or nothing will happen as a result. So to some extent, they're looking for, you know, who is the target that I can easily sexually assault and then get away with it?

CONAN: And David Lisak, we've mentioned that you study non-stranger rape. And that is, from everything we know, the great majority.

LISAK: Yes. It's anywhere from 85 to 90 percent of all rapes are non-stranger.

CONAN: And let me turn to you again, Kim Lonsway. Of those that we know about, there are varying estimates of how many get reported. A minority, in any case. I think there's consensus on that.

LONSWAY: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Depending on the population, whether it's college students or a general population, they range from about five to 20 percent. So, you know, I think where most people - one of many misconceptions about sexual assault. I think most people think, you know, if you were really raped you're going to call the police right away. That is very much the exception. In fact, even if folks do report it, they typically don't contact law enforcement first. They tell someone they love first, and then go to law enforcement. So, yeah, about 5 to 20 percent are our estimates.

CONAN: We want to talk today with people in law enforcement, people who also work with rape victims about attitudes towards victims and their abusers, the rapists, how have they changed? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Lindsey joins us on the line from Watertown, New York, way Upstate New York. Go ahead, please.

LINDSEY: Hi. I'm an RN. I work primarily in a nursing home, but my part-time job is performing rape tests at hospitals. And in that work, I usually have to go to court if they decide to prosecute, or the woman decides to press charges. And I have to testify about what I saw, you know, what my impressions were and, obviously, the tests that are done at the time. And I just wanted to comment that, from my experience, it seems like the woman is usually more on trial than the person - man or otherwise - accused of rape.

CONAN: Kim Lonsway, would that be your experience, as well?

LONSWAY: I think there's pretty widespread acceptance that that's often what happens, that even though there are evidentiary standards and the legal processes, that it is so often the credibility of the victim that really is what decides these cases. And jurors tell us that, as well. So we have a lot of work to be done on that. Yes.

CONAN: And do more of these cases - or fewer, compared to other kinds of very serious felonies - are they plea-bargained? Or are men more willing to go to trial sometimes because they feel it's often he-said, she-said, and as Lindsey and you say, they can sometimes put the victim on trial?

LONSWAY: I'm not sure we can speak to comparison to other felonies for a variety of reasons. The prosecution statistics we have in this field are pretty murky. And, in fact, what you have to do is really take a variety of data sources and piece them together to try to get the whole puzzle of attrition through the criminal justice system of, you know, reports, how many of those will ultimately result in a conviction or incarceration. And the best estimates are - it's probably 2 or 3 percent of all sexual assaults that are committed that will result in a conviction. So, as David Lisak said, very much the norm is that these do not work their way through the criminal justice system.

CONAN: And Lindsey, I wonder: Do you work with women after trials, after they've been blamed?

LINDSEY: I, you know, my sister-in-law works for a house that shelters battered and abused women. And I've sort of gotten an honorary volunteer status through her. And usually, I keep in touch. I have countless resources I can point them to. And if they just need to talk, I give my cell phone number, which is my work number. And I try the best I can. I'm not really allowed to give advice to what I think they should do. But I'm there to listen to them if they need to talk about it.

CONAN: Well Lindsey, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

LINDSEY: Thank you for talking about this.

CONAN: We're talking today with David Lisak, a forensic consultant and expert on non-stranger rape and a founding board member of oneinsix.org, an organization now that serves men who were sexually abused as children. Also with us is Kim Lonsway, director of research and - on - at End Violence Against Women International. If you've been working with rape victims, if you work in law enforcement, we want to hear how attitudes have changed towards victims and rapists. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The alleged rape in Steubenville, Ohio last summer took time to come to light. It's been a tough case to investigate. The victim's parents notified police after receiving photographs, video and Twitter posts about what happened to their 16-year-old daughter the night before. About a week later, two high school football players were arrested and charged with raping her, but investigators are having a hard time figuring out exactly what happened. Law enforcement believes students are withholding information. Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla and other law enforcement officials have received anonymous threats. They've been turned over the FBI.

So if you work in law enforcement or work with rape victims, we want to hear from you. What's changed in your thinking about rapists and victims? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Kim Lonsway, Director of Research at End Violence Against Women International, forensic consultant David Lisak are our guests. And I wanted to ask you, Kim Lonsway, over - you've talked about how this case in Ohio brought different aspects to light. But over the course of your career, how has thinking changed?

LONSWAY: In lots of ways, I think. We've talked some already about the role of social media and how that has been a game-changer on some levels for what this looks like in communities. So that's certainly something we've already addressed. I think one of the things that is so interesting to me is what has not changed, that we have worked so hard to change community attitudes to expand people's understanding of what constitutes a sexual assault. You know, the old days of thinking that this is only a stranger with a weapon in the alley, etc., that that's what folks used to think of as rape. We really have been successful in expanding people's understanding that this is something that happens between non-strangers, etc. So that has changed, I think, the public consciousness of what rape is.

I think one of the things that would surprise folks is that although that has carried through to our community response - we have specialized nurses like Lindsey, who are such heroes, that work in this field everyday, we've increased the training and all kinds of aspects of our criminal justice in community response, but at the end of the day, the research suggests that prosecution rates are no different now than they were in the 1970s. So I think it's really interesting we have made all kinds of strides and improvements. We've changed attitudes and all of that. But it's very clear that many of these attitudes are so entrenched, that we still have a long way to go.

CONAN: David Lisak, would you agree with that?

LISAK: Yes, I would. And I think that's - for many of us, that's the most frustrating thing. And for many victims, it's the most painful reality. I think, ironically, the one sector of our society where we're beginning to see the very beginnings of some fundamental change in how law enforcement and also prosecutors handle these cases is in the U.S. military, where there's actually much more training now going on, state-of-the-art training, than there is in the civilian world.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Rachel, and Rachel's with us from Portland.

RACHEL: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

RACHEL: So I wanted to call in. I've spent the last seven years or so working with sexual assault survivors through a project that I call And It Was Wrong, which is just a space for survivors to share an experience of self-defined sexual assault, however they see it, in a space where they can just call it wrong. And I have seen so many positive changes over the last seven years in terms of awareness and laws and things like that. And then the corresponding needs of victims, though, I don't think have changed. I think the need to have a non-judgmental space where they can speak, where they can call these experiences wrong and get support and validation, I think, has remained constant.

CONAN: It's interesting you choose the word wrong, as opposed to a legal term like rape.

RACHEL: Yeah. I started the project specifically with the intent of saying, you know, I don't care whether - there are so many reasons, and research has been done since the '80s showing that there are so many victims who, when you ask them: Have you ever been raped? They will say no. But when you ask them: Has anyone ever made you have sex through force or threat of force? They will say yes. And so showing this incredible disconnect between people who've experienced rape, but do not define their experiences that way. And so I really felt this need to create a forum to say: I don't care whether we call it rape. I don't care whether we call it sexual assault. Let's just call it wrong.

CONAN: Kim Lonsway, I wanted to ask you about that. Is this a part of that continuum of learning that so many of these crimes are committed by people who know - by somebody who knows the victim?

LONSWAY: Absolutely. And I think that the caller, I'm going to check out her program as soon as I get off the phone, here. That issue of labeling - again, so much of what we think about sexual assault is really compared with what our stereotype is. And even though, intellectually, we may know, for example, that most sexual assaults are committed by non-strangers rather than strangers. And in so many ways, we act as if they are, so that - as the caller described - a majority of people who will say, yes, I have been made to participate in a sexual act because of force or threat of force when I didn't want to. That's clearly rape. And if you ask them, most will say no, they haven't been raped. So that labeling, because they're comparing it with that stereotype. And we just see the effect of that play out in so many ways.

The research definitely tells us that regardless of how you label it, though, the impact is the same. Whether or not you call it that does not affect what your response is over the long term.

CONAN: Rachel, thanks very much for the call.

RACHEL: Absolutely. Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Joining us now to talk about the law enforcement aspect of this issue is retired police sergeant Joanne Archambault. She retired from the San Diego PD in 2002 after working 10 years in the Sex Crimes Division. She's now Executive Director of End Violence Against Women International. And Sergeant Archambault, nice to have you with us today.

JOANNE ARCHAMBAULT: Thank you. And thank you for having this on your program.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, as our guests had said, despite what we've learned and the advances that have been made, the prosecution rates remain what they were in the '70s. Why is that?

ARCHAMBAULT: Well, I was very lucky. San Diego PD started a dedicated sex crimes unit in 1971. And there was a doctoral candidate that was doing his research there in the '70s. I was able to compare his data 20 years later. So this issue, basically in the '70s through the '80s, the majority of sexual assaults reported to the police were strangers. The stereotype that both Dr. Lisak and Dr. Lonsway have been talking about, the tables flipped. So now 80 and above, 80 percent above are these non-stranger cases, which means drug-facilitated sexual assaults, people who are engaged in survival sex trade - high-risk, what the community sees as people engaged in high-risk activity.

So even though it's depressing - and I've been doing this 33 years now. So even though it's very depressing to see those numbers, the types of cases, all those programs that Dr. Lonsway talked about - SANE and SART, the Sexual Assault Response Team - they have encouraged victims to come forward that never came to us in law enforcement just two decades ago. What that means, however, is that our society and communities have not kept up with that paradigm shift. And now - and that's why we see so much victim-blaming, not just by law enforcement, but in the communities. So even when law enforcement does everything right, we get stuck with the jury, because they are judging these victims for what they were doing, what they were wearing, who they were with, if they were doing drugs, etc.

So there's disappointment in there, but I also know that we're seeing victims of trafficking, victims who are engaging in the sex trade that never, ever would have come to us, including all the non-stranger sexual assaults.

CONAN: As the number of cases reported has gone up - nowhere near the number committed, we believe, but nevertheless - we also read that the, in any number of jurisdictions, thousands of rape kits have gone untested. And after a certain period, the statute of limitations kicks in, they just have to be thrown away.

ARCHAMBAULT: Well, that, of course, is very, very, very complicated. So let me just say that it is not as simple as most of the media has made it to be. We didn't even have the combined DNA index system - which is the DNA database with offenders - until the '90s. And that was a first-generation DNA. We later switched to another type of DNA, and those languages do not speak to each other. So we essentially had to start over. We just didn't have the offenders in the database. We didn't have robotics, which we have now. So one DNA test cost $5,000 from a swab. It took weeks and weeks. Now, with robotics, I can have hundreds in the matter of an hour. What I want to make clear to your listeners is that it wasn't like these kits were sitting in this room and we didn't know they were there.

We kept - in fact, there's actually a positive to that. Law enforcement kept those kits, knowing where technology was going to take us. Otherwise, we would have just been dumping all those kits at the point the statute of limitations was expired. And many agencies kept those beyond the statute of limitations, knowing that even though they couldn't prosecute that person, they might help solve or corroborate a current case within the statute of limitations. So let's just say that it's very, very complex, and it broke our hearts as investigators to do these investigations and throw those kits away.

CONAN: David Lisak, is this the case in more jurisdictions? She's obviously talking about her experience in San Diego. But there are a lot of other police departments around the country.

LISAK: Well, yes. And that's the problem with these kinds of issues, is that there's no, really, way to sum it up and average it. You have jurisdictions that, you know, acted responsibly, and as Joanne was just saying, they held on to these kits. And then there were jurisdictions where rape kits that should have been processed weren't, where cases languished because of that, and where I think there was, you know, much more clearly some negligence involved. And to some extent, sexual assault has, in many jurisdictions, often been essentially the poor cousin amongst the crimes, and certainly not the kind of crime that has been the first priority of many departments.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Elizabeth, and Elizabeth with us from West Chester, Pennsylvania.

ELIZABETH: Hi. I'm just calling to talk - I work as a sexual assault victims advocate, and I've been noticing a lot that we've been taught no means no. And I think this is a big factor in the bystander effect. When - especially when alcohol is involved, everybody is looking for a no. But what we should be trying to teach them what - my organization, the Chester County Crimes Victim Center, has been trying to teach that we should be looking for a yes. Yes means yes. I think if we taught children that they look for active consent, that there could be a big difference in these stranger, or the non-stranger assaults.

CONAN: I wonder, Sergeant Archambault, as you reflect on your experience, this issue of bystanders, yes, the social media aspect of it is new. Other parts, are they new to you?

ARCHAMBAULT: (technical difficulties) ...the same to me, and I worked over 10,000 felony sexual assaults at San Diego P.D., supervising and then, you know, just my own experience. And one of the things, we did not see the sexual assaults with people standing around. I had some cases where pictures were taken, videotapes were taken, but it was amongst the offenders themselves. But within the last few years, we've seen some pretty high-profile cases where you have a lot of bystanders. And I think this is a new trend.

I also have seen these gang rapes, multiple-offender rapes, increasing. And there's actually some interesting work by a Dr. Robert Jensen at The University of Texas that shows that what used to be considered hard porn and soft porn - so how do you make porn harder? It's violence against women. And it does concern me, because of this change that I've seen.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Elizabeth. As you continue your work, I wonder: How are women responding to this?

ELIZABETH: Unfortunately, in the last three years that I've been working, I don't think much has changed. I think one of the most important things for women and male victims is to have a safe space that they can call. I work on a crisis hotline, and the amount of calls that we get that they don't want police involvement because of the shame has really increased, from what I can tell.

CONAN: All right...

ELIZABETH: And it's a real shame. And also the - I've been on cases in the hospital where I've been with victims who've been very physically assaulted besides the sexual assault, and she doesn't want to report. The nurses and the doctors, they all get this attitude where, well, why doesn't she want to report? Why didn't she want to do this? Where we really just want the victim to be able to get medical treatment and not be judged.

CONAN: Elizabeth, thanks very much for the call.

ELIZABETH: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about victims, rapists and law enforcement. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let me reintroduce our guests: David Lisak, a forensic consultant, an expert on non-stranger rape and a founding board member of OneinSix.org, an organization that serves men who were sexually assaulted as children. Kim Lonsway is a director of research at End Violence Against Women International. Also with that organization is retired Sergeant Joanne Archambault, who worked for the San Diego Police Department for 23 years, and the last 10 of those with the sex crimes unit and now executive director of End Violence Against Women International. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Sarah, Sarah with us from Scappoose, in Oregon.

SARAH: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

SARAH: I'm not sure I - what you wanted me to contribute to this, but I'm a survivor, and I also worked at a rape crisis center for about four years.

CONAN: As a survivor - and forgive me, how recent was your incident?

SARAH: Oh, I was 14 years old, and I'm now 44. So...

CONAN: So, some time ago.

SARAH: Yeah.

CONAN: Over that time, how do you feel attitudes toward victims have changed?

SARAH: Well, I think there's still a lot of victim-blaming, and the way I hear my son and his friends talk about these sort of situations is, you know, there's still that thing: Why were you wearing that? Why were you out at that time? You know, that kind of thing, I still hear a lot. They don't really understand how - what that does to a survivor. So...

CONAN: And do you try to speak with him?

SARAH: Yes, yes. And he actually - my son is really good with talking to his friends when they say things like that.

CONAN: But does that give you insight into - well, I mean, I don't know how old your son is, but certainly, young teenage boys can be - groups of young teenaged boys can be a little frightening in that respect.

SARAH: Very much so, yeah. And I do hear, still occasionally, the jokes that, you know, this is an issue that, personally, I believe shouldn't be joked about. It's - I don't find humor in it. I don't find humor in, you know, violence against women. But there is - there are still the jokes. And he's 19 years old, and he's good about saying guys, not funny. That's not funny. So - and explaining that there's a lot of women and girls that are survivors that they don't know about. And when they're saying those things, they're saying them in front of people who are struggling with this. And so...

CONAN: And just from the tone of your voice in this conversation, even all those years ago, it doesn't go away. You continue to struggle with it.

SARAH: No. Whenever you think about it, it keeps - it's - yeah. It - every time you think about it, it comes - it brings stuff back up. It doesn't - it's a wound that doesn't really seem to heal. So, yeah.

CONAN: Kim Lonsway, I wanted to bring you in here and ask you just to follow up on what Sarah is talking about. And reaching out to men, boys, how do we address this?

LONSWAY: Yeah. Well - and there are so many pieces of that, and we can talk about prevention programming generally. But since we're focusing on the bystander aspect of it - and Sarah was in her call, as well - you know, I think there's - for someone to intervene in that kind of situation like in Steubenville that we've been describing, or other similar situations, you know, the first step is for someone to realize - make that realization that there's a problem that needs fixing, which I actually think people standing there probably - there were some that were definitely feeling that, I would suspect. So to identify a situation - in that situation as a rape, but even backing up to, you know, as that situation developed, to help folks to identify a risky situation as it's unfolding.

So I know a lot of the educational programming right now is really focusing on the role of bystanders, to identify those risk factors, so it doesn't mask ask just normal social behavior, but is really seen as a behavior that is working towards increasing someone's vulnerability.

And then, of course, once you identify that feeling that you are the one that has responsibility to act. And so I think we can do a lot to prepare people for that situation, so they're not surprised by it.

CONAN: Sarah, that's an inadequate response to a powerful story, but thank you very much for sharing it.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: And I didn't mean in anyway to diminish what Kim Lonsway had to say. It's just there's so much more to say. Thanks to her, to David Lisak, and Sergeant Archambault. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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