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When the help is harmful: Author says system still mistreats rape victims

Despite an increase in rape crisis centers and improvements in the treatment of rape victims over the past 30 years, many are still pervasively mistreated by the police, doctors, lawyers, judges and administrators who process them, according to a Florida State
University sociologist.

In her new book, "Rape Work: Victims, Gender and Emotions in Organization and Community Context," (Routledge), Patricia Yancey Martin argues that even well-meaning officials do harm by simply doing their jobs. That’s because most put their organization’s interests above those of the victims.

"Mainstream organizations instruct—and often require—their members to treat victims unresponsively, in ways that add to rather than alleviate the trauma of rape," said Martin, the Daisy Parker Flory Professor of Sociology and chair of the FSU department. "For example, they instruct them to remain skeptical, emotionally aloof and uninvolved and to challenge victims as witnesses whose stories must be validated rather than comfort them as victims who warrant empathy and support."

Martin studied how the law enforcement, legal and health care systems respond when someone alleges that he or she has been raped. This includes activities such as collecting physical and narrative evidence, protecting the scene of the crime, identifying, arresting and prosecuting rapists, and aiding and comforting victims.

For the book, Martin interviewed 200 people who work with victims and studied material such as reports, protocols and rape kits from 80 mainstream organizations and 25 rape crisis centers in 22 Florida communities. She found that most people who work with rape victims are sympathetic to them and their plight.

So why do these professionals treat rape victims so badly?

In many cases, it is because they are poorly trained or concern about prosecuting a criminal case takes precedence, Martin said. For example, police officers are focused on building a case and medical personnel often resent doing rape exams because they are essentially evidence collection procedures, not medical exams.

The legal system is perhaps the most obvious example of a system where the victim is lost in the process, according to Martin.

"Our adversarial legal system that makes the prosecutor and defense attorney sparring partners with the victim in the middle is brutal," she said. "Judges generally know almost nothing about rape or what victims go through, so prosecution is agony for rape victims. Jurors don’t understand rape either, so those few cases that go to trial often do not end in conviction."

And while there have been improvements—most notably the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs implemented at most major hospitals and the introduction of rape crisis centers beginning in 1974—Martin acknowledged that, sadly, the subject of her book is not a new problem.

"This problem has been talked about for three decades," she said. "Activists in the anti-rape movement brought it into the light and out of a stigmatized cloud of mystery and shame that once prevented us from talking about it. With the exception of rape crisis centers, organizations that deal with rape victims will have to change in big ways for us to improve."

Communities in which rape crisis centers and police departments work closely together are the most responsive, Martin said, adding that more coordination among organizations with input from rape victims would surely help them. In addition, she believes medical and law schools and police academies must provide more training in dealing with rape victims.

Martin also recommends finding alternatives to the regular legal procedures, such as RESTORE, a project that is currently being tested in Arizona. The program allows a victim of a "non-violent" rape to meet and tell her rapist how the experience affected her.

"Our research shows that victims want to be heard and believed," Martin said. "They want people to know the harm they suffered. They want someone to apologize; they want society to validate their experience."