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Guns Effective Defense Against Rape

This is the first column in a two-part series discussing how guns can protect women during rape attempts.

On Oct. 3, 2000, a woman was raped near the East River Flats Park. The police report triggered headlines as well as consternation among many students and staff members.

In reality, it wasn't news, and shouldn't have shocked anybody. Yes, it differed in several particulars from the typical campus rape. (Both victim and perpetrator were older than most students and he was a stranger to her; it occurred outside rather than indoors; the felon was one of only 5 percent of rapists to use a firearm; the woman reported it to police.) But the sad fact is that rape is, quite literally, an everyday event on our campus. Although the media — including the Daily — must not have recognized it, they were writing "Dog Bites Man" stories, not "Man Bites Dog."

The Department of Justice has recently released an important new study: "The Sexual Victimization of College Women." Its chief finding is about 2.8 percent of women in college experienced a completed or attempted forcible rape in the previous approximately seven months, only about 5 percent of which are reported to police.

Extrapolating from these figures, the authors suggest 4.9 percent of college women suffer such an assault in any given calendar year, and perhaps 20 to 25 percent over the course of a typical undergraduate career. (Graduate students appear to be at considerably lower risk.) This survey appears to be free of the ambiguous questions that provoked heavy criticism of earlier studies reaching similar conclusions.

The Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota has 45,361 students. We would therefore expect about 2,200 completed or attempted forcible rapes per year, or about 6 a day on average, assuming the current findings are approximately correct. Contrast that with the average of 57 annual "forcible sex offenses" (including events that would not be classified as rape or attempted rape) the University has reported to the Department of Education over the last three years — the official number a prospective student will see before deciding whether to attend.

In 1999, an independent crime research firm, CAP Index, Inc., reported the University's neighborhood ranks eighth on their scale of one to 10 (with higher numbers being worse), meaning the crime rate here is three to five times the national rate.

So what can women on campus do to reduce their risk? The new Justice Department study provides several pieces of useful information — some new, some confirming conclusions of previous research.

1) Intoxication is probably the greatest risk factor, apart from simply being female. This is almost certainly due to a combination of the effects of high blood levels of alcohol: One's physical strength and coordination are impaired, one's inhibitions (e.g., to flirtatious or overtly sexual behavior) are lowered, and one's mental alertness is compromised.

Raising this point always brings the charge that one is blaming the victim. Not at all. In an ideal world, a young woman could drink herself into a stupor at any place and time and still not be raped. But in that same ideal world, I could walk through Central Park at midnight with a wad of $100 bills hanging out of my pocket and still not be mugged. We do not live in that world; it is foolhardy and naive to act as if we do.

It is an inescapable fact that choosing to imbibe to the point of being drunk is choosing to be at an increased risk of being raped, as surely as getting in a car with a drunk driver is choosing to be at an increased risk of being injured in a crash. Certainly some people make such choices without deliberation as to the risk that accompanies it, but the risk accompanies the choice nevertheless.

2) Two-thirds of the rapes occurred off-campus, though they might have been locations immediately adjacent to campus, such as bars or apartments. The majority occurred in housing, especially the victim's own home. Predictably, more than half occurred after midnight, with most of the others happening between 6 p.m. and midnight.

3) Ninety-three percent of the completed forcible rapes and 82 percent of the attempted rapes were committed by classmates, friends and boyfriends/ex-boyfriends; acquaintances and "other" (presumably including strangers) made up the small remaining fraction. However, despite the frequent use of the term "date rape," only 13 percent of completed rapes and 35 percent of attempted ones occurred on what the victim categorized as a "date."

But the Justice Department gives interesting data on an additional step women can take to help prevent the escalation of an attempted rape to a completed one: physical resistance.

"For both completed rape and sexual coercion, victims of completed acts were less likely to take protective action than those who experienced attempted victimization. This finding suggests that the intended victim's willingness or ability to use protection might be one reason attempts to rape and coerce sex failed. Note that the most common protective action was using physical force against the assailant. Nearly 70 percent of victims of attempted rape used this response — again, a plausible reason many of these acts were not completed." Unfortunately, the survey did not further elucidate the sub-types of physical resistance used.

The available scientific literature on this question is divided, with some studies concluding physical resistance — with all types considered together — increases a woman's chance of the rape being completed and/or that she will be seriously injured. (This wording is unavoidable but is not meant to imply that the rape itself is not a grave injury.) Others find the opposite, again with all forms of physical resistance analyzed as one.

However, most recent studies with improved methodology are consistently showing that the more forceful the resistance, the lower the risk of a completed rape, with no increase in physical injury. Sarah Ullman's original research (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1998) and critical review of past studies (Criminal Justice and Behavior, 1997) are especially valuable in solidifying this conclusion.

I wish to single out one particular subtype of physical resistance: Use of a weapon, and especially a firearm, is statistically a woman's best means of resistance, greatly enhancing her odds of escaping both rape and injury, compared to any other strategy of physical or verbal resistance. This conclusion is drawn from four types of information.

First, a 1989 study (Furby, Journal of Interpersonal Violence) found that both male and female survey respondents judged a gun to be the most effective means that a potential rape victim could use to fend off the assault. Rape "experts" considered it a close second, after eye-gouging.

Second, raw data from the 1979-1985 installments of the Justice Department's annual National Crime Victim Survey show that when a woman resists a stranger rape with a gun, the probability of completion was 0.1 percent and of victim injury 0.0 percent, compared to 31 percent and 40 percent, respectively, for all stranger rapes (Kleck, Social Problems, 1990).

Third, a recent paper (Southwick, Journal of Criminal Justice, 2000) analyzed victim resistance to violent crimes generally, with robbery, aggravated assault and rape considered together. Women who resisted with a gun were 2.5 times more likely to escape without injury than those who did not resist and 4 times more likely to escape uninjured than those who resisted with any means other than a gun. Similarly, their property losses in a robbery were reduced more than six-fold and almost three-fold, respectively, compared to the other categories of resistance strategy.

Fourth, we have two studies in the last 20 years that directly address the outcomes of women who resist attempted rape with a weapon. (Lizotte, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 1986; Kleck, Social Problems, 1990.) The former concludes, "Further, women who resist rape with a gun or knife dramatically decrease their probability of completion." (Lizotte did not analyze victim injuries apart from the rape itself.) The latter concludes that "resistance with a gun or knife is the most effective form of resistance for preventing completion of a rape"; this is accomplished "without creating any significant additional risk of other injury."

The best conclusion from available scientific data, then, is when avoidance of rape has failed and one must choose between being raped and resisting, a woman's best option is to resist with a gun in her hands.

Go to part 2


Robert J. Woolley is a staff physician at Boynton Health Service. He welcomes comments at wooll005@tc.umn.edu. Send letters to the editor to letters@daily.umn.edu
2000 Minnesota Daily, all rights reserved

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24 feb 2001