Fight Sexual Violence! Why Isn't Rape A Political Priority?

Posted: May 08, 1989

The brutal rape and beating of a young woman who was left for dead by a teen-age gang was the most vicious in a series of assaults in Central Park on April 19. It was the only one involving sexual violence. Explanations that rely on race or class alone miss the key role gender played: The jogger was victimized because she was a woman, and the boys apparently acted out of a misguided notion of how to prove their manhood.

Sexual violence against women is rampant. More than 3,400 women will report being raped this year in New York City, and thousands more will be raped and never report it. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says a woman is raped in the United States every six minutes; one of 10 women will be raped in her lifetime. Yet programs or strategies to combat rape are not a priority on the federal, state and local levels; it is a serious failure of political leadership.

A woman can't walk on the street, especially at night, without fearing she will be raped or assaulted. The threat of rape doesn't come only from strangers, as we know from the prevalence of acquaintance rape.

Rape is only superficially a sexual act. It is foremost an act of violence, degradation and control. It has nothing to do with flirtation by the victim. It has nothing to do with miniskirts and tight sweaters. Women of all appearances and ages - from 9 months to 90 years old - are raped.

Sexual violence against women exists because attitudes dehumanizing women exist. In a recent study of junior high school students in Rhode Island, 50 percent of the boys said it was acceptable to rape a woman if a man spent at least $15 on her. In a survey of college students, one man in 12 admitted to a rape - but not one considered himself a rapist.

There has been a startling increase in rape by teen-agers. In the last two years in New York City, there has been a 27 percent increase in rape arrests of boys under 18 and a 200 percent increase in rape arrests of boys under 13. Some young men see rape and violence as a rite of passage: a chance to show they are really men.

Our criminal justice system reflects society's distorted attitudes about men and women. While there is rarely any question of blaming the victim in a mugging or a murder, women are made to feel that rape is their fault.

Jurors often blame rape victims, and studies show that they are less likely to believe victims who had prior sexual experience, used birth control or met their assailants in bars.

Even judges are not immune to such thinking. One New York judge said about a case in which a man broke into a woman's house and brutually raped her, "I think it started without consent, but maybe they ended up enjoying themselves."

The outrage we feel about the Central Park rape must serve as a catalyst for change. A comprehensive strategy must be developed to fight sexual violence.

Sex-offender programs must be established inside prison and for ex- offenders who have re-entered society. There are far too few treatment programs for adults, fewer still for adolescents. Penalties for juvenile sex offenders must be increased to reflect the seriousness of the crime. Now the longest sentence a juvenile rapist can get is 10 years.

We cannot stop sexual violence against women without altering stereotypes. Attitudes that debase women or encourage men to legitimize themselves through violence against women must be changed.

Society should stop identifying sex with violence and with denigration of women, and that includes the images on television and in the other media. We need a new respect for women and their bodily autonomy, and that means, too, a more humane notion of what defines a man.

Sex discrimination, in all its forms, must be eliminated. The Equal Rights Amendment must be adopted. We need to increase opportunities for women in the professions and public office, in part to provide leadership for campaigns to change attitudes and stop violence against women. And we must not let our anger diminish after the Central Park tragedy recedes from the front page.

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