The inquiry Michelle Bowdler poses in the title of her debut book, “Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto,” is neither a trick nor a rhetorical question. It is an indictment of one of the most glaring contradictions of the US criminal justice system. Despite criminal codes, special police units, and legislation, law enforcement and prosecutors continue to fail to investigate rape and sexual assaults as scrupulously as other equally brutal felonies. And the victims (the term Bowdler prefers over survivors) and their experiences are largely minimized and dismissed by a “flawed and harmful process.”
In 1984, while her roommates were away from the Boston apartment they shared, two men broke in, blindfolded, tied up, and raped 24-year-old Bowdler repeatedly over several hours. Her attack was one of a series of break-ins and rapes that promptly led to the formation of the city’s Sexual Assault Unit.
The book focuses on how the callous and condescending response of law enforcement impacted her trauma. Immediately after the attack, Bowdler was made to feel like a criminal when she was placed in the back of a police car and asked to provide her fingerprints for the investigation into her own brutalization. “[T]hose hours of being raped and fearing for my life weren’t what ultimately crushed me. Rather, it was the experience at the police station offering my fingertips to law enforcement, hoping it would help them in their investigation.”
Her treatment in the emergency room wasn’t much better. A nurse asked if she could be pregnant. When Bowdler responded that her only partners have been women, she was pitied, as if being gay makes her rape by two men even worse.
So little has changed in the over 30 years since Bowdler’s attack. Eerie similarities echo between her treatment by the justice system in 1984, Alice Sebold’s experience in 1981, which she wrote about in her 1999 memoir, “Lucky,” and Chanel Miller’s 2015 sexual assault, which she recounted in her 2019 memoir, “Know My Name.” Blame and objectification of the victim is a barbaric age-old tradition that Bowdler bracingly examines in her urgent book.
For rape victims, the notion of justice remains a dizzying maze with no exit. “Regardless of the years that had passed, my case was still inextricably linked to present-day societal beliefs, behaviors, and policies,” writes Bowdler. “Even where some progress was undeniable, the foundation of rape culture and misogyny continued to have a wide and unremitting impact on rape investigations worldwide.”
Healing from trauma is complicated. Bowdler stumbled and recovered and then stumbled again. Eventually, she pursued a graduate degree at Harvard’s public health graduate school and took a position as the administrator of health services at Tufts University. She met her wife, Mary, and they have two children. Her family life and her incredibly supportive (and insightful) partner serve as her anchor.
When a 2007 article in the Boston Globe reported on the state’s failure to test years-old rape kits, something jarred loose in Bowdler. She recalled her own rape kit, completed decades earlier, and never hearing about its status again. Her fury about the lack of testing, not just of her own kit, but thousands of others, reached a boiling point. She vowed to devote herself to the cause of raising awareness and pressuring agencies to unearth and test them. Professionally, Bowdler became the person she needed in 1984 — an advocate. She now implements workshops to train health care workers on how to treat sexual assault victims.
Bowdler incisively dissects the language surrounding sexual assault. A rape kit “backlog,” isn’t a supply of kits that agencies haven’t had the time or the resources to test. Rape kits are like junk mail. They are discarded and stuffed into bins before they’ve been opened. No one ever intended to test them.
Bowdler also bristles at the substitution of survivor for victim: “People survive sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to be lauded as an Olympian for the effort. I was a victim of a violent crime. I didn’t die. Let’s get on with it.” She is weary, too, of empty gestures and performative measures. She eyes with suspicion flashy new investigative units specializing in sex crimes and legislation focusing on rape victims. “Rape cases should not need extraspecial support to make sure law enforcement do their job and rape crimes are investigated,” she writes.
“Is Rape a Crime?” forcefully advocates for a more humane protocol. Success, Bowdler argues, is synonymous with treating victims of rape with the same degree of seriousness and compassion as victims of other violent crimes. It also requires dismantling the current system of investigating sexual assaults brick by brick, and building something entirely new. As for the question she poses in the book’s title, Bowdler leaves readers with a searing edict. “We have to do better than this.”
By Michelle Bowdler
Flatiron Books, 304 pp., $27.99
Anjali Enjeti is a freelance critic whose reviews have appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Post, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.