Rape laws reflect society’s change - East Valley Tribune: News

Rape laws reflect society’s change

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Posted: Sunday, August 14, 2005 9:02 am | Updated: 7:54 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Until this past Friday, a man who raped his wife in Arizona might have been convicted of a misdemeanor. Increasing the punishment to a felony is one example of how society and the law have changed their view of sexual assaults.

In the span of a generation, there has been a number of steps taken to improve how victims are treated and increase punishments for offenders.

There used to be no such thing as spousal rape, and technology that could determine the origin of genetic material — key evidence in crime cases — was unreliable.

Physical force, rather than just the threat of such, was once required for prosecution.

In many cases, it was up to the victim to prove she didn’t provoke the assault through her actions, such as drunkenness or dressing provocatively.

"We’ve kind of come a long way the last 20 years," said Joan McGregor, an Arizona State University bioethics professor and author of a new book on acquaintance rape, "Is It Rape?"

The latest change brings Arizona in line with the rest of the nation, punishing a man who rapes his wife with the same severity as if he had raped a stranger.

Until the new law went into effect, the maximum sentence for spousal rape was 18 months in prison. Also, judges were allowed to treat the offense as a misdemeanor, ordering only that the husband participate in family counseling.

Rachel Mitchell, sex crimes bureau chief for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said the most important advancement in recent years is DNA technology.

"It used to be you would get excellent statistics, but you would need a a larger amount of sample," Mitchell said. "Then, it went to a different technology where you could use a much smaller sample, the (size of the) head of a pin, but your statistics weren’t so good. Now, you can use that small sample, but you can get (better statistics)."

Yet it’s hard to determine how these advances translate into public safety.

According to the latest crime reports compiled by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the state has a national ranking of 24th in rapes per 100,000 population.

But some experts say the true rate is probably higher.

"The areas of sexual assault and sexual violence are among the lesserreported (crimes) because of the stigma," said Steve Ballance, director of the commission’s Statistical Analysis Center. "I’m sure nobody would want to have a common discussion they’ve been raped."

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