Approximately 125,000 rapes are reported in the United States each year. And in 49 out of every 50 cases, the alleged assailant goes free, often, we now know from DNA evidence, to assault again. Which means that rape—more than murder, more than robbery or assault—is the easiest violent crime to get away with. Barbara Bradley Hagerty spent a year investigating why. What she found is a criminal-justice system that reflexively disbelieves women: a “subterranean river of chauvinism” where the fate of a rape case usually depends on the detective’s view of the victim, not the perpetrator. Her investigation, “An Epidemic of Disbelief,” is The Atlantic’s August cover story.
“From the moment a woman calls 911 (and it is most always a woman; male victims rarely report sexual assaults), a rape allegation becomes, at every stage, more likely to slide into an investigatory crevice. Police may try to discourage the victim from filing a report. If she insists on pursuing a case, it may not be assigned to a detective. If the case is assigned to a detective, it will likely close with little investigation and no arrest.” If a woman who is raped is poor or otherwise vulnerable, if she had been using alcohol or drugs, or if she had been paid for sex at some point in her life, the bias against her intensifies. Hagerty looks into one case in Minneapolis, where the head of the city’s sex-crimes unit elected not to investigate or even run a background check on an assailant who turned out to be a serial rapist. Instead, police ran a background check on the victim, and stopped investigating when they saw that she had a prostitution charge from 12 years earlier. When Hagerty questioned the former officer, and countered that the prostitution charge was a dozen years old, he responded: “Yeah, but that lifestyle keeps dragging you back.”