One of the great weird open secrets of American society is how much less crime there is than there used to be. Serious crime has fallen dramatically in just about every category since the early seventies — robbery is down 69%, assault by 62%, theft by 74%.
But even in the context of this overall decline in crime, one statistic stands out:
Rape is down 88%.
Yep. Eighty-eight percent. And this isn’t a shift in reporting to police — the figures come from the Bureau of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey, which interviews Americans directly about their experience of crime each year.
Now, there are a lot of reasons for the overall decline in crime, from advances in police work to simple demographics. And yet rape stands out. Of all the major crimes tracked by the NCVS, rape is the one where we’re seeing the most progress.
And what has changed in American society since 1973? We’ve begun to take rape seriously. We’ve started to move away from “blaming the victim.” We’ve moved in the direction of sensible and humane approaches to policing and prosecution. We’ve moved toward treating rape as the crime that it is, even in circumstances in which we previously shrugged it off.
And we’ve also moved toward a healthier, less furtive, more open attitude toward sexuality and gender. In a world in which women can say without hesitation that they have had sex, the rapist has far less power to shame and to silence. In a world in which people talk sensibly and publicly about sexual ethics, better sexual ethics emerge and propagate.
Finally, we’ve moved toward a world in which cross-gender socialization is the unremarkable norm. We’ve moved away from sex segregation in schools, in dorms, in the workplace, in social settings. Men and women (and boys and girls) now interact casually to a degree that would have been unimaginable a few generations ago, and that interaction has had a profound effect on how men see and understand women.
What’s changed? What’s changed is that we’ve become a more feminist society. What’s changed is that feminism and allied social movements have transformed the way we live, have fought and won battle after battle to make this country a better place.
There’s still a long way to go, obviously, but we’ve come far enough to know this: