Campus rape cases can be difficult to prove

Campus rape has become a national concern in recent years, as high-profile cases at various schools have highlighted the extent of this problem. One study suggests that as many as one in five women fall victim to sexual assault or attempted sexual assault at some point during college. Unfortunately, these victims often face significant challenges in pursuing justice or even proving rape occurred.

Frequently, campus rape cases come down to “he said, she said” evidence. In many of these cases, there are no witnesses aside from the people who were directly involved. When these individuals were acquaintances or friends before the sexual assault, victims may have trouble proving they did not consent to sexual activity. This may especially be true when a victim and attacker have had past sexual relations or when a victim withdraws consent during sexual activity.

A recent case at the University of Illinois Chicago illustrates this issue. A woman alleges that she was raped after consensual activity with a “friend with benefits” crossed the line. According to the man, the two were acting out a scene from “50 Shades of Grey.” At one point, the man ordered the woman to resist him more and struck her forcefully with a belt. The woman states that she became uncomfortable and started legitimately resisting and telling the man to stop. The man maintains that they were role-playing the entire time. During a preliminary hearing, a judge determined the case lacked probable cause and dropped the charges against the man.

Unfortunately, victims of campus rape may also face other barriers to proving rape occurred. For many victims, the way the brain responds to trauma can be a handicap. Rape victims may have trouble giving linear accounts or remembering the incident at all, and this problem may be exacerbated in attacks involving intoxication. This memory failure occurs because the brain encodes emotions and sensations, rather than narratives, during traumatic events. Withdrawal is also a common response to trauma. Consequently, when describing a rape later, victims often display a flat affect. These responses may undermine a victim’s apparent credibility.

The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women estimates just 2 to 8 percent of rape charges are false. However, the accounts of campus rape victims are frequently met with skepticism. Authorities may view shaky memories or a flat demeanor as signs that allegations of rape are fabricated. When victims report rape, authorities often question or attack any contradictions or gaps in the accounts that victims give. Sadly, many victims may hesitate to come forward, knowing they may be re-victimized during police interviews or judicial proceedings.