Bioethics Blogs

A Public Health Model for Sexual Assault?

Tom Vinci proposes a public health model for dealing with sexual assault.


I have read that only 33/1000 cases of sexual assault – rape and sexual interference of other kinds — are reported to the police and only six of these reported cases go to trial. No wonder. The costs to the victim (most often a woman) in carrying forward a complaint are significant. These costs include possible police skepticism when non-testimonial evidence is not available (as is frequently the case), as well as verbal and social-media attacks from supporters of the assailant before, during and after the trial. Moreover, providing testimony and listening to testimony from others about the humiliating and intimate events involved in the assault can be a difficult experience. Attacks from a zealous defence attorney during trial and, if there is an acquittal, attacks on her character and motives after trial can also be emotionally and socially damaging. It is a wonder that anyone comes forward to report sexual assault.

How can we do better? Any just system should have certain features: victims should be heard and their complaints should be recorded; perpetrators should receive swift and certain consequences for their actions; perpetrators should be treated humanely and offered treatment options. But there is a catch: any system having the feature of swift and certain consequences is one that increases the risk of convicting innocent people beyond acceptable levels. To compensate for this, the consequences must be milder than lengthy terms of imprisonment, but still ensure accountability and deterrence.

Photo Credit: n.karim

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.