The ‘Spotlight’ series is dedicated to highlighting civil and human rights concerns and abuses, at home and abroad.
When you think about threats to human rights, you probably conjure up an image of a prison camp in some autocratic regime, or perhaps of a failed state without much of civil society or governing institutions. But I’m choosing to launch the Spotlight series with a piece about sexual violence in America, rather than one about child soldiers in Africa or political repression in Southeast Asia. Why?
There are two reasons: the scale of the problem, and the lack of attention paid to it.
If you are a woman who has gone to college, there is a 1-in-4 chance that you will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape. If you are a woman who has not gone to college, that number drops – but only to 1-in-6. Overwhelmingly, rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Most of the time, they are not reported to the police. When they are reported, most are not prosecuted.
In other words, sexual violence in America is pervasive and largely goes unpunished. When a society systematically fails to safeguard its members against a threat to their basic bodily integrity, then it’s time to invoke the term ‘human rights’. Thats how we rightly frame these issues abroad, and that’s how we should frame them at home.
The scale of the problem means that there are three kinds of people in the United States: those who have survived a sexual assault, those who know someone who has survived a sexual assault, and those who do not know that they know someone who has survived a sexual assault. Given that context, how is it possible that this problem doesn’t receive more attention?
One answer, of course, is that it actually receives quite a bit of attention. From public safety announcements to college orientations to an entire Law & Order franchise, sexual violence is a familiar boogeyman. But while sexual assault is a familiar evil in the abstract, in its particular manifestations, it largely lives in the shadows.
Sexual violence isn’t likely to come up in a political debate or during a town meeting or a call-in show. It’s not a topic for ‘polite conversation’. If you bring up international human rights abuses at dinner, you might spark a lively conversation; if you bring up sexual violence in the United States, you’re likely to be looking at some uncomfortable faces.
In part, this is because we treat sexual violence as a personal problem, rather than a social issue. In public, talking about sexual violence can be a lot like talking about indigestion: it’s an unpleasant topic and, besides, what do you want me to do about it? A lot of people, especially men, reason this way: I’m not a rapist, I’m not an enabler, I’m not a victim, so this isn’t really about me.
But, of course, it is. The social taboo on talking earnestly about sexual violence is something we all play a role in perpetuating. Every time we dismiss a claim of sexual assault as prima facie not credible – despite indications that false reporting is exceedingly rare – we make it harder for victims to come forward. Every time we ignore the objectification of women – without even pushing back to the absolute minimum standard that says that no person’s agency to decide what you do with their body can be ignored – we make it easier for people to be victimized.
And sexual violence is also inescapably bound up with male culture. Because we misunderstand the reality of sexual assault in America, most people have a model of rape that understands it in outdated criminology terms: rape is an antisocial behavior – it is something engaged in by people who have transgressed against the values the rest of us hold up. If that’s true, then the rest of us – good and decent people – simply need to find a way to defend ourselves against them.
In reality, rape is not antisocial in that sense; rather, it is a cultural phenomenon. Rape, as it manifests in modern-day America, depends on cultural models of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to have sex. You can’t tackle sexual violence without tackling those things first.
You can’t tackle sexual violence without empowering women. You can’t tackle sexual violence without enlisting men in the project. You can’t tackle sexual violence without having a grown-up conversation about sex. And you can’t tackle sexual violence one case at a time.
If 1-in-4 college women are the victims of a completed or attempted rape, how many college men are perpetrators? How many college men have friends who are perpetrators? How many fathers and mothers raised sons who went on to become perpetrators? How many fathers and mothers raised women who went on to be assaulted and didn’t feel empowered enough to say something about it?
This woman was assaulted by her boyfriend, and when she spoke up, her university threatened her with expulsion. In Detroit, more than 10,000 rape kits were ‘forgotten’, and the city is only now getting around to testing them – but even in jurisdictions that haven’t declared bankruptcy, the backlog on rape kits can stretch into the thousands. Nationwide, estimates put the number of sexual assaults that lead to prison time at around 3%.
Sexual violence is a deeply personal and intimate tragedy – and it is also an inescapably social failing. If it’s going to get any better, then it has to be widely, urgently, and publicly talked about.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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