Is It Time to Rain on RAINN’s Reign? “Nation’s Largest Sexual Violence Organization” Thinks Police Can Stop Rape

Our nation is awakening to the horrifying realities of police violence.

State violence and domestic and sexual violence intersect in terrifying ways, but the tepid message of the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) in response to the police killing of George Floyd and its aftermath downplays the correlations and issues. That’s because the “nation’s largest sexual violence organization” champions criminal justice solutions as the primary approach to ending sexual violence. On this matter, RAINN is out of step with most current sexual violence prevention scholars and advocates.

Before quoting or donating to RAINN, please read this blog post in order to make an informed decision about citing or supporting their work. In the three sections of this post—#RapeCultureIsWhen, #WeCanAlwaysReport, and #MoneyMatters, I show that RAINN promotes dubious strategies, gives out erroneous information, and has questionable governance.


#RapeCultureIsWhen

RAINN recommends White House focus on criminal justice response to college rape.

The U.S. Department of Education’s 2020 regulations for implementing Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions, came out in May, and the sexual violence prevention community is upset. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ regulations reduce legal liabilities for schools and colleges and narrow the scope of cases schools are required to investigate. 

RALIANCE, a national partnership dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation, and thousands of other organizations submitted public comments.

We are deeply disappointed in the Department of Education’s final Title IX regulations released today that roll back protections for survivors of campus sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. The new rule will make America’s college campuses and K-12 schools less safe.”

 

RALIANCE May 6, 2020 press release

I do not see that RAINN submitted public comments or issued a press release on this critical initiative, so we’re left with RAINN’s last public statement on the issue: the 2014 letter that it submitted to the Obama White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which remains on the RAINN website[3/23/22 UPDATE: RAINN deleted its page on its letter to the White House so that link is dead, but here’s the page as of December 28, 2021 courtesy of the Wayback Machine Internet Archive]

The Trump administration’s revamping of Title IX follows the RAINN letter’s reasoning, which argued that universities should stop spending money on prevention and let the criminal justice system handle rape on college campuses. RAINN wanted the federal government to push colleges to improve the criminal justice response to rape and de-emphasize internal judicial boards. RAINN President Scott Berkowitz and then Vice President for Public Policy Rebecca O’Connor explain their logic:

In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime. … You may note that we have not used the term “primary prevention,” which is widely used in the field. That is because we have a different definition of primary prevention than many. We believe that the most effective — the primary — way to prevent sexual violence is to use the criminal justice system to take more rapists off the streets. 

 

RAINN February 28, 2014 Letter to White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, United States Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women

RAINN’s approach pooh-poohs the concept of rape culture, which can be defined as a society which, among other things, accepts sexual violence as the norm. In response to RAINN’s letter and to educate people about the realities of sexual violence in our culture, Zerlina Maxwell created the hashtag #RapeCultureIsWhen so people could provide examples about the victim-blaming realities they face.

I started the hashtag #RapeCultureIsWhen on Twitter hoping that it would spark a public dialogue about rape culture and shift the conversation away from the myths that shame so many survivors into silence.

 

Zerlina Maxwell, “Rape Culture Is Real” in Time Magazine

While we have seen wide-ranging opinions and debates on how to handle sexual violence on college campuses, most sexual violence prevention advocates recognize that successful prevention strategies address rape culture. RAINN’s position is out of step with what the sexual violence prevention community—the people they are supposedly representing—advocates.

What RAINN gets wrong in their assertion is the idea that rape culture provides distraction from the real goal of holding rapists accountable. … [Rape Culture] gives us a frame for dismantling the ways our society supports rapists, and it tasks us all with changing them.

 

Megan Kovacs, “We’re Not ‘Hysterical’ for Talking About Rape Culture” in Bitch Media

The sexual violence prevention community has diverse opinions on the role of criminal justice in addressing sexual violence. Some advocates argue that the criminal justice system has a place while prison abolitionists seek to dismantle the prison industrial complex. All, except RAINN, agree that criminal justice should not be the primary approach. 

While a criminal justice response is part of the solution, we cannot end rape by primarily enforcing criminal laws. I cannot think of any social problem that has been solved primarily by criminal enforcement.

 

David Lee, “Using a comprehensive approach to preventing sexual violence” in Prevent Connect Blog

RAINN advocates for a criminal justice response to sexual assault at colleges even though it recognizes that the criminal justice system produces poor results. According to the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey statistics that RAINN itself cites, “out of every 1000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free.” 

RAINN doesn’t seem too disturbed by the criminal justice system’s acknowledged flaws.

 

Wagatwe Wanjuki, “RAINN’s Recommendations Ignore Needs of Campus Survivors of All Identities” in Feministing
We cannot fix university adjudicating systems by outsourcing the work to a structure even more deeply flawed and resistant to reform.

 

Alexandra Brodsky, “Don’t criminalize college responses to sexual violence” in Al Jazeera America

RAINN’s conclusion was based on David Lisak’s research, which identified the existence of serial rapists on college campuses. Lisak strongly disagrees with RAINN’s conclusions from his research, seeing prevention and criminal justice working together:

With regard to the merits of prevention efforts and the criminal justice response to sexual violence, I do not see these as competing approaches. In fact, I see them each as necessary and complementary components of any comprehensive program aimed at reducing the prevalence of sexual violence. … We absolutely need both, and we absolutely need to continue our efforts to increase the efficiency of both.

 

David Lisak’s letter to the White House Task Force in response to RAINN’s letter

Preventing sexual violence is difficult and complex. As a result, there are many stakeholders and a diversity of opinions. If we are looking to understand the views of victim-survivors, their advocates, and sexual violence prevention experts, we are best off not looking to RAINN. 


#WeCanAlwaysReport

For years, the RAINN website inaccurately stated that there is a time limit on reporting to the police.

In support of RAINN’s commitment to criminal justice solutions, its website sugarcoats the process of reporting to the police. For example, the webpage, “Reporting to Law Enforcement,” states: “Some survivors say that reporting and seeking justice helped them recover and regain a sense of control over their lives.” While that may be true, RAINN does not acknowledge that the opposite is also true: Some victim-survivors find reporting to the police to be a traumatizing and disempoweringsecondary victimization.” Representing interactions with law enforcement as consistently positive sets up false expectations and does not prepare victim-survivors for the insensitive and harsh realities that many end up experiencing. 

For years, the RAINN webpage also falsely stated that there are statutes of limitations on reporting to the police. (6.25.20 UPDATE: Finally, after this blog post went public, RAINN corrected the error.) In the United States, there are never statutes of limitations on reporting crimes; only on prosecuting and that only in some jurisdictions. You can always report a crime. Always. 

While reporting and immediately collecting any physical evidence is most helpful for prosecuting a case, reporting after the fact still has benefits. It puts a suspect’s name and/or physical description on record, which can be useful if they assault someone else. Reports made years later, even after the statute of limitations has expired, may be used as evidence to help establish a pattern in the prosecution of another crime by the same suspect. 

Reporting can also be healing. I reported to the police the rape that I had experienced 35 years after it occurred and decades after the statute of limitations had expired in my state. I wanted to do everything I could to hold the man who raped me accountable, belated as it might have been. I am a white as is the man who raped me, and I had explored and exhausted my other options. Reporting the crime—naming the man who, as a fellow college student, had committed a felony against me—was a powerful and healing action for me. It was also frustrating because what the police officer wrote in the report was not what I had said. In other circumstances, the discrepancies could have been devastating.

I started the hashtag #WeCanAlwaysReport to provide an empowering perspective on the scenarios described by the hashtags #WhyIDidntReport, #WhyWomenDontReport, and #BeenRapedNeverReported. Victim-survivors can always report the crimes we’ve experienced. We may choose not to. Depending on our goals and the dynamics of our situation, it may be more strategic for us not to report than to report. When we have not yet reported, we know—and the people who have violated us know—that we can report at anytime, should the spirit move us. Typically, people who have violated prefer that a police report not be filed. Not filing provides leverage.

Involving the criminal justice system is not a good option in many situations, and RAINN hyping reporting to the police as a positive experience is disingenuous. Every situation is different, and victim-survivors need to make the decision that’s best for them. I’d like victim-survivors to be aware of their options, including reporting to the police, and the probable outcomes of their options so they can make informed decisions. For years, RAINN, with its misleading messaging on statutes of limitations, denied victim-survivors the knowledge of a possible action that we do have, an action that’s powerful whether we choose to use it or not. And by sugarcoating the process of reporting to the police, RAINN sets victim-survivors up for secondary victimizations.


#MoneyMatters

RAINN President Scott Berkowitz 2018 compensation, $420,370, is well past twice the median salary for comparable nonprofits.

RAINN’s mission statement begins by noting that it is the “nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization” like that’s a badge of honor. I don’t see how size is a mission. Size is not an end in and of itself, especially since size isn’t necessarily a good thing. In personal relationships, as the sexual violence prevention field can attest, size can translate into power, and power can lead to abuse. 

At any rate, I’m not sure how RAINN is measuring size. It’s not the budget. Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), for one, is larger. Perhaps, the president’s salary? In 2018, RAINN President Scott Berkowitz made $420,000 managing an organization with a budget of $13 million while also, according to his RAINN bio, running another company. He’s paid 2.7 times the next highest paid RAINN executive. Charity Navigator’s CEO Compensation Studies indicate that his salary is well past twice the median salary for comparable nonprofits. For some perspective, in 2017, now retired PCAR CEO Delilah Rumburg made $151,000 managing an organization with a budget of $20 million. Among other things, PCAR runs the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)

Berkowitz founded RAINN back in 1994 and is still at the helm. The RAINN board consists of Berkowitz and four independent voting members, who list no affiliations. Charity Navigator gives RAINN a red “x” for not having at least five independent voting board members and notes that industry professionals strongly recommend an independent governing body to allow for full deliberation and diversity of thinking on governance and other organizational matters. RAINN has a national leadership council and a program advisory board but those groups are not the same as the board, which is the governing body. Given RAINN’s governance structure, it’s not surprising that it doesn’t accurately represent sexual violence prevention advocates.


To conclude, RAINN is out of sync with leading sexual violence prevention advocates and scholars, publishing erroneous information and advocating criminal justice approaches to preventing rape on college campuses. RAINN is not governed by an independent board and its president makes a salary grossly out of line with comparable nonprofit leaders.

I’ve given you insight into RAINN so you can make an informed decision about quoting or donating to them. I’ve made my decision: RAINN RAINN, go away!


UPDATE: For my latest on RAINN, please see my April 23, 2022 post, “April Showers Rain on RAINN’s Reign,” and March 1, 2022 post, “Finally! Rain on RAINN’s Reign,” inspired by Bradford William Davis’ exposé of RAINN’s toxic workplace culture.


Many thanks to Jacqueline White for pushing me to turn this research into a post and to Ellyn Bank for perceptive questions.

© 2020 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to tweak, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 7.26.2020. First published 6.11.2020

To make sure you don’t miss future updates, please subscribe to Reservoir of Hope:

2 thoughts on “Is It Time to Rain on RAINN’s Reign? “Nation’s Largest Sexual Violence Organization” Thinks Police Can Stop Rape

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s