Rape: the real issues

April 24, 1991

Mayor Schmoke signed a proclamation Monday officially making this "Rape Awareness Week." But in many ways it was a perfunctory gesture -- allegations of rape at the Kennedy home in Palm Beach have already raised the public's awareness of rape.

The problem is, outside of generating a debate about whether victims should be named by the media -- kicked off by NBC and the New York Times' naming the alleged Palm Beach victim -- the public discussion of rape has been little more than scandal-mongering, and the real issues have been largely ignored.

Despite the celebrity identification with the Palm Beach story, rape remains a hauntingly pervasive and underreported crime. Nationally, one in four children is sexually assaulted by the time he or she reaches 18; 1 in seven women is raped in her lifetime. In Baltimore city alone, 687 rapes were reported in 1990 -- an increase of 27 percent from 1989. Moreover, because of shame, fear, social stigma and the difficulty of making rape charges stick, only about one in 10 rapes is ever reported. When underreporting is taken into account, perhaps as many as 18 women in this city are raped every day.

Rape Awareness Week is a warning to take precautionary steps, certainly. But it also is a mandate for citizen action -- for pressing the City Council to light unlighted streets and alleys and to step up foot patrols in crime-ridden neighborhoods, for communities to set up late-night transportation alternatives for women, and to conduct neighborhood education campaigns. Most of all, Rape Awareness Week should bring a shared recognition that sexual assault is a serious and widespread crime, and that those who are victims did not ask to be assaulted. Sadly, as the Palm Beach scandal sadly shows, that is by far the hardest task.

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