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Last week, following mounting pressure from feminists, civil libertarians and - perhaps most influentially - a withering segment on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," the House Republicans behind The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act said they would drop controversial language restricting access to state-funded abortions to victims of "forcible rape."

The word "forcible," obviously, was driving the controversy. What other kind of rape is there?

The bill's authors are right to change this language. And the rest of us should take the opportunity to think about why rape has become a side issue to the broader abortion rights debate. The crime of rape continues to be a little talked about - and even less understood - phenomenon in America today.

Even more troubling is that it continues to be a mystery to lawmakers and law enforcement.

The only thing we really know about rape in America today is that it happens. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that some 60 percent of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. As a result, our society is ill-equipped to prosecute rape, let alone prevent it; we have such limited real information about exactly who its perpetrators and victims are. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an advocacy group, most perpetrators end up walking free. But we may never know exactly how many, precisely because rape statistics are infrequently and inaccurately collected.

While it is impossible to get a true picture of the crime, a 2007 study commissioned by the Department of Justice estimated that about 18 percent of U.S. women have been raped. The most recent "census" of rape, included in the National Crime Victimization Survey, contains statistical data collected in 2008 - but doesn't include data on underreporting or offer a comprehensive picture of rape in prisons, the military or when men are victims. The most prominent advocacy groups continue to cite statistics from the 1990s.

And because of traditional media policies to not disclose the names and histories of rape victims, these women, men and children largely remain invisible to the public eye. Although there are good reasons why newsrooms have historically protected victims' identities - personal privacy, respect for their fears of social stigma or reprisal - it is just this type of practice that reinforces the social stigma by veiling rape in a shadow of secrecy, taboo and shame. Some advocates suggest that the stigma deters rape survivors from reporting the crime, for fear that they won't be protected by the law, and may even be further traumatized by the reporting process.

Why should these fears - often well-founded - of institutional coldness, a hostile society or an ineffective justice system continue unchallenged?

Whatever the reasons - whether rape is simply impossible to define as a single type of act, whether rape victims voluntarily remain in the shadows, whether the legal and criminal justice system is not set up to protect and serve rape survivors - a confluence of taboo, ignorance and ineffectiveness have built up a tremendous barrier to addressing this widespread and systemic social ill.

While there are people who speak out and work on rape prevention and justice, their voices remain on the fringe of the national debate. Before we can serve rape survivors, prosecute and punish rapists, and prevent these violent acts, we must first begin talking about rape - and no longer as a sidebar to other highly politicized conversations, but as a stand-alone issue that affects Americans across the spectrum of race, gender, age and income level.

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