There’s been some chatter about “a haven for rapists” lately. Even a demand that I say something about the topic. So here goes.
My first thoughts on “haven for rapists” is that, in order to know whether something is a haven or not, I would first have to know what such a haven looked like. So what is a haven? According to the several dictionaries I consulted on the matter, a haven is a place of safety.
In the current context, that’s probably worth emphasizing. A haven isn’t a gathering place or a hangout. It’s a place of refuge, originally a port, but now any shelter. It remains a haven whether it’s used or not.
This raises the question of what endangers rapists.* What would they, in particular, need to be safe from?
The obvious answer is prosecution. Anyone who commits a crime faces a risk of prosecution. That puts the police and prosecutors in a position to provide a haven for rapists. In fact, that happens. Police discourage rape victims from reporting or even coerce them into recanting. They refuse to take reports and/or mark those reports “unfounded” without an investigation. Prosecutors decline to pursue court cases against rapists on the grounds that they don’t have evidence (even when they do) or because it is difficult to persuade juries and judges to convict and sentence rapists even with evidence.
This means that police and prosecutors, in the general case, provide a haven for rapists. They, along with others in our society who punish rape victims for reporting in one way or another, have so successfully created a haven for rapists that it’s estimated that only 40% of rapes are ever reported to the police.
When so many rapists are free from reasonable concerns about prosecution, what other dangers do they face? What else can they be protected from?
There are administrative consequences to rape as well, at least theoretically. Whether we’re talking about a workplace, an educational institution, or an event put on by an organization, there are plenty of people who have a responsibility to people in their care. Because the presence of a rapist endangers those people, those institutions will sometimes face a responsibility to keep rapists out of certain places to the best of their ability.
Here too, there is an opportunity to provide a haven for rapists. The White House has taken action under Title IX because educational institutions have declined their responsibility to keep their students safe from rapists reported to them. A suit is filed under Title VII over workplace harassment that includes rape alleges that the employer has protected a rapist instead of meeting its duty to its other employees. When, for example, we point out that an organization continues to invite a speaker who has been credibly accused of rape, we’re saying they have protected that rapist at the expense of the safety of their other participants.
In each of those cases, when an organization declines to apply the administrative remedy that would exclude a rapist in order to make the rest of a group safe, the organization has protected the ability a rapist to participate in those spaces. No, this doesn’t mean that every report equals a rape. However, when policies or administrative practices lead to this result on a regular basis or barring extraordinary circumstances, reported rapists will receive this benefit. Then it becomes fair to say the organization has provided a haven for rapists.
That still doesn’t exhaust the possible dangers that rapists face. Most rapes and rapists don’t face a real risk of prosecution. Most don’t happen in settings where administrative consequences apply. When you point this out to people who are worried about, say, the consequences of a false report, though, this doesn’t ease their concerns. Instead, they bring up reputation.
In some cases, the risk to a rapist’s reputation is probably overestimated. For example, Roman Polanski, while convicted of rape, continues to work with A-list actors. His social standing has been damaged by being known to have drugged and raped a teenaged girl, but he still has plenty to spare. Still, Polanski is an outlier. He had plenty of reputation to begin with. Risk to reputation is real, even if overestimated.
So how does someone protect a rapist’s reputation within spaces they control? They could just say rape shouldn’t reflect on the rapist, but that’s such an extreme position it can be comfortably dismissed. Aside from that, there are three solid ways I can think of. They don’t let people talk about an accusation of rape even when relevant, they allow people to misrepresent the facts surrounding the rape, or they engage in such misrepresentation themselves. The first is straightforward, but the second and third may be best understood using examples. I would say that people doing the following are misrepresenting facts regarding a rape:
- Continuing to claim that the accuser is anonymous after they’ve put their reputation on the line to talk about having been raped.
- Speculating the probability of an accusation being true while eliding the evidence that supports the accusation.
- Dismissing a claim of rape with or without evidence based on rape myths.
- Blaming the victim.
- Attacking the character of the accuser or of people saying the accusation is credible based on factors entirely unrelated to whether the accusation is true as though it has a bearing on whether the accusation is true.
There are other ways to go about it, but you probably get the idea. In any of those cases, I think it’s fair to say that allowing those misrepresentations to stand protects the reputation of a rapist, assuming that the rape in question occurred.
Doing so as policy or standard practice, along with not allowing people to talk about rapes generally (or, say, that vast majority of rapes that do not lead to convictions) is providing a place where rapists’ reputations are safe. As in the case of administrative sanctions, making this a matter of policy or general practice elevates this to providing haven to rapists.
To sum all this up, if your policies or common practices protect rapists from prosecution, administrative sanction, or damage to their reputations, you’re providing a haven for rapists. You’re creating a space in which they are safe. If you don’t want this pointed out, you might want to reconsider those policies and practices.
*It is worth pointing out that not all rapists or people accused of rape face the same risk of any of these consequences. As is true with people at risk for rape itself, the people most at risk of facing consequences for raping someone are the least powerful people in our society. People who have fewer resources and are more likely to be viewed prejudicially are more likely to be prosecuted and convicted, more likely to be expelled or fired, and more likely to be viewed with continuing suspicion. It’s also worth mentioning that this is one of the areas in which stereotypes about men’s desire for sex and women’s capacity for aggression put female rapists of men at an advantage.