Over the past year or so, we've seen dozens, if not hundreds of stories about sexual assault and/or rape perpetrated either on college campuses, or sadly, by beloved celebrities. The most recent Pro Publica article about Darren Sharper (a NFL player and a William & Mary alumnus, unfortunately) highlights that when sexual assault occurs, it is often not reported, and even when it is reported, the police don't investigate, and prosecutors don't prosecute the crime enough. On college campuses, the failures of administrators to adequately deal with sexual assault has the Department of Education to actually threaten to pull federal funding from these universities.
So what is going on? While we can debate the patriarchy and the prevalence of rape culture until we're blue in the face (and which are all valid points), doing so won't fix the problem people raping without fear of either prosecution or convictions. And here's why: the fundamental problem with rape is that it is defined in most criminal statutes as knowingly having sexual intercourse with someone without their consent.
Based on that definition, the prosecution has to prove that there was: 1) sexual intercourse; 2) no consent by the victim to have sexual intercourse; and 3) the Defendant knew that the victim did not consent or could not give consent. And the prosecution has to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning that the jury is supposed to look at the facts, and if its possible that to find consent, even if its unlikely, they're supposed to vote for acquittal. Now, when it comes to a stranger rape - random guy breaks into a woman's home and rapes her, or, grabs her off the street and rapes her - consent is easy to disprove because the man's actions indicate his intent to rape. But, in the case of date rape, where there will be two separate stories of what happened, with one party saying it was rape, and the other party claiming it was consensual, the waters are muddied, and it comes down to whether or not the jury believes the rape victim or the perpetrator. In that context, a conviction for acquaintance rape is almost impossible.
So, for police and prosecutors, rape cases are difficult, emotionally draining, and rarely result in the "bad guy" going to jail. Even if they were inclined to take date rape seriously (and sadly, many don't), tilting at windmills ultimately takes it toll. Little wonder then that, as with the Darren Sharper case (who raped at least nine women), police and prosecutors are reticent to get involved.
But the one thing about laws is that they can change. And here, I think legislatures could change the law slightly. Rather than make consent an element of the crime of rape (and thus, has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt), make consent an affirmative defense to the crime of rape. That is, once the prosecution has proven the basic elements of rape, and has a complaining witness* (the victim, and only the victim), make the accused prove that consent was given - not beyond a reasonable doubt, but by a preponderance of evidence (a/k/a "more likely than not").
*The reason for needing a complaining witness is basically this - if rape is defined as sex without consent, then not having to prove consent means all sex could be deemed rape. Having a complaining witness might fix that problem.
Obviously, this isn't a panacea. And it may be something that college campuses should implement first (some have already), and then for the legal system to catch up. That said, if convictions are more likely, then prosecutions are more likely, and that may or may not be a good thing. But it would or could be a start.