11/01/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

On Savile, Sandusky, and the Power of Rape

Rape is about power. The attacker seeks to control and subdue the victim's physical and psychological integrity. When we address rape, it is therefore essential to overturn this power-imbalance and restore dignity and control to the victim. Most often, we fail miserably at this.

Consider the case of recently deceased BBC television host, Jimmy Savile. BBC leadership has all but acknowledged they preferred to suspend investigations into Savile's allegedly repeated sexual assaults on hundred of children over the years, rather than risk upsetting their star. This case mirrors the decade-long collective calculated cluelessness at Penn State football coach where evidence of Jerry Sandusky's abuse of children was routinely ignored in favour of the revered coach.

It is no wonder that less than half of rape victims file a report with the police: if those around them stand with the attacker, why wouldn't the police? And, in fact, studies show that police officers believe rape victims are more likely to lie about their assault than victims of any other crime, despite evidence to the contrary. Three percent to 8 percent of rape complaints are false -- similar to the proportion of other crime complaints.

But even when sexual assault is reported, investigated, prosecuted, and a conviction has been handed down -- the probability of this happening is less than 5 percent -- power-dynamics prevail. In Ireland last week, for example, a 29-year-old man was offered the opportunity to pay his way out of jail after he was convicted of violent sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl. The sentence rightly led to protests from pundits and lay-persons alike, though it highlights a simple fact: neither rehabilitation of the attacker nor justice and support for the victim is a priority in the manner in which we deal with rape.

The priority, it seems, is power.

Over the past decades, law-makers in many countries have responded to rape and sexual assault mostly when particularly graphic violence has been detailed on the news: a child abducted and abused, a woman forced to work in a brothel. These cases are horrific, indeed, and the suffering of the victims and their families cannot be overestimated.

However, state responses to sexual assault that are born from media attention to specific cases can, and often do, have negative consequences.

First of all, narrowly targeted responses contribute to separating the "deserving" from the "undeserving" victims. Policies that focus on "forcible rape", "legitimate rape", and rape by someone who is not the victim's spouse implicitly support the notion that some people "had it coming". The list of justifications alleged perpetrators of rape have successfully used to defend their actions is truly absurd: it is not rape if the victim was my daughter, my wife, if she was drunk, or if the rape was somehow the expression of "culture."

These justifications run counter to human rights obligations on crime prevention and protection against abuse. Every individual -- adults and children alike -- has the right to live free from violence and sexual abuse. It is a core governmental obligation to promote public safety by holding offenders accountable and by putting in place effective crime prevention measures.

And narrowly targeted responses are often not effective at preventing rape. Sex offender registration laws and community notification measures in the United States, for example, have shown to be costly to society, harmful to reintegration efforts of ex-offenders, and--most notably--without any discernible effect on public safety. Indeed, the mere fact that only about 5 percent of rapists are ever convicted should say something about the effectiveness of community notification: not very high. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of sex offenders do not reoffend, and the relative uselessness of sex offender registries as instruments of public safety becomes clear.

We can restore power and dignity to rape victims by treating rape like we would treat any other crime. That means taking rape seriously and investigating it fully. It means having the necessary equipment on hand to obtain evidence in a timely and dignified way (and not, as Amnesty International found in Alaska, making women pay for flights to get to police stations that stock rape kits). It means applying the same standard of proof for all crimes and all victims, regardless of their sexual history and martial status. And it means sentences that take into account appropriate factors like the gravity of the offence, the specific circumstances of the crime, and the age and maturity of the offender.

Rape and sexual assault are expressions of power imbalances. For prevention to work, policy makers must look at the motivation behind them -- much like they should look at the motivation for other crimes. We should examine the social forces that allow some offenders to walk away with impunity and others to be punished disproportionately.

Our approach to rape should break the power dynamic, not reinforce it.