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The rape myth that lives on in Idaho

Photo by Flickr user Jim Forest

This week, an Idaho sheriff faced national backlash after saying that most rape victims in his rural county were lying. Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland told a local television reporter, "The majority of our rapes that are called in are actually consensual sex.”

That’s why, he said, the state shouldn’t force officers to test rape kits.

Rowland made his argument Monday (which he has partially retracted), just before Idaho lawmakers unanimously approved a bill that would, among other requirements, give local authorities 30 days to submit DNA evidence collected from victims and their clothing to the state police, who would then have 90 days to add it to their database. Currently, officers decide whether rape kits should be tested.

The measure, which now goes to the governor, would create a new sexual assault evidence-processing system for Idaho’s law enforcement and medical centers. Since no statutes in the state address rape kit collection, the legislation would, according to the authors, “provide a consistent process to better support victims."

House Bill 528, as its called, follows a 2015 Idaho Press-Tribune investigation that found several law enforcement agencies in the state sent less than half of its rape kits to DNA testing. One agency, according to the report, tested only 10 percent of the evidence.

The action also comes amid outcry nationwide over rape kit backlogs and how long it can take to process the evidence. Advocates say the delays, which can stretch years, imperil public safety — rapists tend to be serial predators, and it's harder to prosecute them without DNA evidence.

The latest guidelines from the Justice Department, meanwhile, say beliefs like Rowland's can derail sexual assault investigations before they even begin.

“Acting on stereotypes about why women … are sexually assaulted, or about how a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault should look or behave,” the document states, “can constitute unlawful discrimination and profoundly undermine an effective response to these crimes.”

Rowland, who has not responded to requests for an interview and for rape statistics from his office, wrote on Facebook that he faced intense online backlash, and he apologized for offending people. He explained his thoughts:

A Deputy is sent to every one of these cases and that Deputy then in turn contacts the on call detective to help with the investigation. In some of these cases through the investigation it may be determined that the sex was consensual, but not always. In these types of cases after the investigation is complete and it was determined that the sex was consensual I don't believe that those kits should be sent to the lab.

Some users fired back in the comments. One wrote:

There is no excuse for the statement you made. None. What are you planning on doing to mitigate the damage your statement has caused, what will you do to help victims in Bingham county feel like they can come to you for help? Law enforcement sensitivity training? A sheriff sponsored sexual assault awareness campaign? Do you have a plan other than complaining about how difficult things are for you?

Others appeared to accept Rowland's apology. A Boise woman posted Wednesday:

I left him a message explaining that I am a recent victim of sexual assault and that statements like his are why so many rapes go unreported. He promptly returned my call and apologized profusely regarding his statement.

David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who studies sexual violence and advises the military, said that assuming most rape reports come from consensual sex, in any community, is "flat wrong."

“It’s hard to imagine anything more silencing than a statement like that,” he said of  Rowland's comment. “He’s saying from the get-go, 'I’m not going to believe you.' Why would you then put yourself in an extremely difficult and emotionally wrenching experience of reporting an assault to the authorities?”

While false accusations do happen, Lisak said, he has found in his own research that they're rare. In 2010, his team looked at each sexual assault reported to a major university in the Northeast over a 10-year period. Of the 136 cases reported, eight appeared to be false allegations. Researchers compared these results to previous findings elsewhere and concluded that the prevalence of false reports falls between two percent and 10 percent of the total.

In 1995, the Bureau of Justice Statistics put the number of “unfounded” rape reports at eight percent, based on data from local law enforcement agencies.

These, of course, are estimates. No one can definitively say how many accusations are true and how many are false. No credible research, however, comes close to suggesting that “most” reports stem from consensual sex, as Rowland claimed.

The sheriff offered an example: What if a 17-year-old girl has sex with her boyfriend, he told the television reporters, and then gets caught by her parents and cries rape?

"What does that do to her down the road?" he asked in the local news segment. "What does that do to her partner?"

He doesn't mention the latest CDC estimate: About one in five American women have experienced rape.

The mistaken belief that rape accusations are often false has persisted in law enforcement, making rape a severely underreported crime. Victims' fear that law enforcement won’t believe them can deter them from contacting the authorities, Lisak said. Only one-third of sexual assaults lead to a police report, according to Justice Department estimates, and just two percent lead to a conviction.

Idaho state Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise), who introduced the bill, told the AP that Rowland's comments are damaging to women. “Many times people are focused on a woman’s behavior and the victim’s response when we should be thinking about what are we teaching men in this society," she said Monday. "What are we teaching young boys and men about how we should not initiate or cross any physical boundary without consent.”

More from The Washington Post:

Consent bro: Meet the guy who teaches frat brothers what 'yes means yes' means
Attorney general: Gender and racial stereotypes derail rape investigations
What a creepy Bloomingdale's ad tells us about America's understanding of rape