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Sexual assault experts dispel date rape myths

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HEIDELBERG, Germany — They plot, they plan, they fantasize.

They’ll get her drunk, they’ll get her alone, they’ll get her.

They’ll do it again whenever they feel like it, because they can.

Experts on sexual assault told more than 100 U.S. Army Europe senior leaders that the soldier who rapes a drunken woman after a night of partying made no mistake: He probably did it before and will do it again.

The experts — a former prosecutor, an academic, an expert on stalking and chief of Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training for the U.S. Army Military Police School — challenged what they called myths about “date rape,” by far the most common type of rape in the military and elsewhere.

First, don’t call it “date rape.”

“Just using those words implies “rape lite,” said one general after the seminar who asked not to be named. “… And there’s no such thing as ‘He said, she said.’ You just have to keep digging.”

Among the most surprising assertions were that 95 percent of rapists go “undetected” — rarely reported after raping women they know at parties, in dorm rooms, barracks and apartments. And that although enabled by alcohol — to disable the victim and disinhibit the perpetrator — these rapes are usually premeditated.

“They think about it ahead of time. They fantasize it,” said Russell Strand, the Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training chief.

“It’s ‘I’m going to have sex tonight. If it’s consensual, fine,’ ” said Anne Munch, a former prosecutor in Denver.

These rapists are not just regular guys, overcome by desire and alcohol, who have misunderstood "signals," the experts said. They’re narcissists, lacking empathy, feeling entitled, almost uncertain to change — and will rape women repeatedly.

"This picture conflicts sharply with the widely held view that (non-stranger) rapes … are typically the result of a basically ‘decent’ young man who, were it not for too much alcohol and too little communication, would never do such a thing," one of the experts, psychologist David Lisak wrote in a paper last year based on his research of rapes by college men.

"While some … rapes do fit this more benign view, the evidence points to a far less benign reality, in which the vast majority of rapes are committed by serial, violent predators," Lisak wrote.

The four consultants were interviewed after the March 9 seminar, which the media was not allowed to attend.

The experts have been giving similar talks to military groups since 2004, after the military came under fire after critics say they were turning a blind eye to sexual assault in the ranks.

The U.S. Congress mandated the services start sexual assault prevention and awareness programs in 2004, one year after ordering them to begin keeping sexual assault statistics.

"And frankly, it was a shame it took Congress to tell us to do that, because frankly it was long overdue," Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, said in a speech last year in which he went on to criticize the Army’s first efforts as too little, too process-oriented, under-financed and ineffective.

Last summer, a Government Accountability Office review of military efforts to address sexual assault found fault with slow investigations, especially downrange, inconsistent and inadequate victim assistance and, in some cases, command resistance.

"Years of inaction at the DOD continue to speak volumes about senior leadership’s commitment to our servicemembers and civil servants," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said seven months ago in a hearing. "When it comes to sexual assault in the military, the DOD has absolutely no credibility."

According to a Veterans Administration study, up to one-quarter of women who served in the armed forces said they had been sexually assaulted. That’s comparable to the number of college women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted.

"Women ages 16 to 24 experience rape at rates four times higher than the assault rate of all women, making the college (and high school) years the most vulnerable for women," according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a nonprofit organization of law enforcement personnel, researchers and universities.

The Army has responded recently with more attention to prevention, and Munch said the military hasn’t received due credit for addressing sexual assault.

"The Air Force, Navy and the Army have done more in four years than the civilian communities have done in 40,’’ Munch said. "I think the bottom line is none of us is doing a sufficient job to really protect victims or hold offenders accountable."

Much of the data underpinning the view of the acquaintance rapist as a scheming predator armed with alcohol, and a traumatized but silent victim comes from studies on college campuses.

Among the data are some 14 studies starting in the 1980s in which men were asked questions about sexually violent behavior without the behavior being labeled "rape" or "assault." Because they didn’t view what they had done as "rape," the men discussed it.

Lisak, an associate psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, an authority in rapist typology, said 4 percent to 6 percent of men in the general population are undetected, serial rapists, and that interviews showed the men plan ahead.

They use alcohol, drugs and dominance to subdue their victims, usually leaving no visible injuries. Still, they share the same "motivational matrix of hostility, anger, dominance, hyper-masculinity, impulsiveness and antisocial attitudes" as the stereotypical ski-mask wearing, stranger rapist who jumps out of the bushes, Lisak says.

Not everyone is convinced. Rana Sampson, a former police officer, lawyer and consultant for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, said that because so few women that age report the crime — just 5 percent — there isn’t enough data to know how many acquaintance rapists are serial rapists.

There might be new research she’s not aware of, she said in an e-mail, but she believes rapists probably fall into similar categories as other types of offenders: some offend once, some a few times, and some are habitual offenders.

Sampson said it’s likely that the ones who rape often do premeditate, but that may not be true for the rapist who rapes once."

The experts told the leaders that victims are equally misunderstood, and suffer in isolation.

Even the victims are caught up in patriarchal myths that allow men to exploit women, the experts said. Was she raped, or was that something else? Wasn’t that guy her friend? Didn’t she make out with him? And why did she drink so much? These widely shared attitudes obscure rapists’ culpability.

"Society says this behavior is OK," said Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center in Washington, D.C., and one of the experts at the seminar. Garcia said acquaintance rapists often call their victims afterward to subtly warn them against reporting, and get "validation."

Whether they had acknowledged their experience as a rape or not, 30 percent of the women identified as rape victims contemplated suicide after the incident, according to one study, and 82 percent said that the experience had permanently changed them.

If they do report, victims frequently behave in ways that make successful prosecution less likely: "There are common victim behaviors: Delayed reporting, minimization, self-blaming, feeling guilty," Munch said.

"A good victim is a bad witness," said Strand, the MP school chief. "Offenders are so good at what they do. They’re going to use alcohol, drugs and trauma so (the victims) don’t remember much."

Furthermore, the victims were seen with their rapists, perhaps being affectionate; they willingly went off with him, they were drunk; they froze perhaps but didn’t resist; maybe they stayed the night and accepted a ride home.

The Army is now in the process of trying to hire detectives and prosecutors knowledgeable in the dynamics of these rapes, and to train others so that investigations and prosecutions into these complex and difficult cases will be more effective. Without a proper investigation, "almost every nonstranger rape case quickly devolves into the proverbial ‘he-said-she-said’ conundrum," Lisak wrote, leaving judges and juries unable to discern what actually occurred.

"It’s like a whole shift on how we march the cases forward," Munch said.

In 2007, only 181 out of 2,212 reports of military sexual assaults, or 8 percent, were referred to court-martial. By comparison, say critics of the military’s sexual assault response, 40 percent of those arrested in the civilian world on such charges are prosecuted.

Lisak, though, estimates that just 15 percent of all rape victims report the crime to police. "Of the 15 percent who do report, it is estimated that perhaps 10 percent result in the filing of charges — and perhaps 40 percent of those cases result in some sort of conviction," according to his Web site.

"We’re educated, now what?" asked an officer after the seminar.

"Don’t wait for me to prescribe some USAREUR program. Don’t wait until April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month," Gen. Carter Ham, USAREUR, said in his closing remarks. "This is an everyday problem. It’ll exist until we stamp it out. It’s going to take commitment. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to take challenging the culture."

Strand said later that the culture changes all the time — it once disallowed women and blacks to serve, still bans gays and lesbians, and is attempting changes now to perceptions about manliness and mental health care.

"In the 1970s, MWR paid for strippers," he said.

Success in dealing with sexual assaults would initially mean more women reporting the assaults against them, the experts said, and command climate surveys showing improvements in how commanders, investigators and others react. "We get people to trust the system," said Strand.

Yet increased reports are politically problematic. "They have gone up since 2005, and that’s a concern to leadership."


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