After the CDC released their report on rape, my local paper ran an oped titled “No tolerance for sexual violence.” Really? This is what news coverage of the past year has taught me as a young woman:
If I go missing, my job will be a factor in how vigorously the police search for me. Perhaps I will lose my identity and will only be known as an escort or prostitute.
If I go public about being raped, but my attacker is a famous, wealthy, influential man, I will be the one put on trial in the media.
If I press charges against my attacker, but he happens to be a member of the NYPD, I will not see justice.
If the man who attacked me runs for public office, and I come forward as a survivor of his harassment, I will be attacked and vilified in the media.
If I join the military, I will be more likely to be raped by an American soldier than killed in combat. If I try to seek justice as a member of the military, it will be completely up to the discretion of my commanding officer to take the case further. More likely, I will be transferred and will have no guarantee that my attacker will be kept away from my new unit. If I try to appeal that decision, a court will say that “judicial intrusion” is inappropriate in the military.
If I try to seek justice and refuse to back down, my attacker can dupe the criminal justice system and accuse me of a crime, landing me in jail and smearing my name all over the news.
And did I mention how, if I am found dead, the press will spend more time discussing my job than the guilt of my murderer?
What’s new about the CDC study on sexual violence is not the information—those who care to know have known these terrible statistics for years—it’s that a government agency was the one that actually gathered the data. Anyone can log onto www.rainn.org and see similar statistics regarding rape and sexual assault. The number of women who experience rape and other violence at the hands of their intimate partners is only shocking to those who have an outdated view of rape; it is only shocking to those who continue to think about rape as something done by a stranger who lurks in the bushes at night. The number is shocking to those who only think of rape as “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will”—for instance, the FBI, which only last week updated this definition of rape.
Here are a couple more lessons that I did not see covered in my local paper: only one in 16 rapists ever spend a day in jail for their crime; across the country, women who came forward to the police to press charges and had physical evidence taken from them still have not seen justice. Rape kits with DNA evidence that have not been processed exist across this country because there is a lack of will to prosecute rapists.
Do you see connections in a society that defines rape so narrowly that our law enforcement discounts the lived experiences of women, and a society that does not view sex workers as human beings? When we define rape so narrowly, it makes is so much easier to minimize the problem, and to blame victims whose attack did not fit the FBI’s arcane definition.
The FBI has finally stepped up to the plate and decided to count experiences like what I went through in their crime statistics. That is one step. But we must go beyond defining rape to preventing and ending it.
Our society must value women, all women, regardless of the short-term job decisions they make (or are forced into). We must trust them and their bodily integrity enough to understand that only yes means yes. We cannot allow a double standard that lets certain powerful men get away with committing rape while we feign outrage at similar crimes when they are committed by less-known men.