Rape Messaging

By Alena Allen

When feminists began advocating for rape reform in the 1970s, the rape message was clear: rape was not a crime to be taken seriously because women lie. After decades of criminal law reform, the legal requirement that a woman vigorously resist a man’s sexual advances to prove that she was raped has largely disappeared from the statute books, and, in theory, rape shield laws make a woman’s prior sexual history irrelevant.

Yet, despite what the law dictates, rape law reforms have not had a “trickle-down” effect, where changes in law lead to changes in attitude. Women are still believed to be vindictive shrews so police continue to code rape allegations as “unfounded,” and prosecutors continue to elect not to prosecute many rape cases. To many, “no” can sometimes still mean “yes.”

In short, criminal law reforms have only marginally succeeded at deterring rape and increasing conviction rates for rape. At the same time, criminal law reforms have entrenched gender norms and endorsed the message that acquaintance rapes are less worthy of harsh punishment. This Article argues against further ex post criminal law reforms and posits that
efforts should shift to ex ante public health interventions. This Article draws from recent successful experiences with public health interventions in destigmatizing AIDS and denormalizing tobacco and advocates for a robust public health campaign to denormalize rape. It presents a detailed proposal for changing rape messaging, denormalizing rape, and ensuring better outcomes for victims.