Throughout history, rape—forcible sexual intercourse without consent—has occurred in most cultures around the world. Usually understood as aggression against women, rape has also been used against slaves and prisoners and other social groups who traditionally lack power or status. During wars, widespread raping of women has also served as a means of humiliating, degrading, and demoralizing enemies. When anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday studied 156 tribal societies, dating from 1750 B.C. to the late 1960s, she found that rape was particularly common in maledominated, violence-prone societies in which women had little or no political power.
In contemporary times, rape has continued to be a widespread global problem. In one recent example, soldiers on both sides of the Bosnian war between Croats and Muslims in the 1990s regularly committed gang rapes and forced women to act as prostitutes and sexual slaves. Researchers estimate that at least twenty thousand women were raped, most of whom were Muslims.
News of the Bosnian atrocities shocked and horrified Americans, most of whom felt far removed from such lawlessness. Americans have traditionally taken pride in living in a democracy, governed by the rule of law. Most citizens believe in the ideals of justice, fairness, and respect for the worth and dignity of every individual. They are strong advocates of human rights, including the right to be safe from violent sexual assault and degradation.
However, despite an encouraging decline in the overall incidence of rape from 1993 to 2002, rape remains a widespread and serious problem in the United States. According to the Rape,Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), every six minutes a rape or attempted rape takes place somewhere in America. For sexual assault—a broader category that the U.S. Department of Justice uses to classify rape, attempted rape, and other violent felonies that fall short of rape—the estimated frequency is every two minutes. And the...