By Lisette Schillig
April 11, 2013
T.S. Eliot once described April as the “the cruelest month,” but it’s sadly not the only one. April is designated National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but we know that instances of sexual violence do not confine themselves to a 30-day stretch in spring. The headlines tell as much.
In the last few months alone the stories have kept coming, out of Steubenville, OH, Amherst, MA, Chapel Hill, NC, Halifax, Nova Scotia, State College, PA, and Delhi, India—stories of young women being drugged, raped, and urinated on while bystanders hold up phones to film the brutality; stories of women gang-raped and beaten so severely that they don’t survive the injuries; stories of victims who first suffered sexual assault only to be bullied and shamed by peers afterward.
There are other stories, of course, which don’t make the headlines, but come as whispered confidences between friends, as scuttlebutt in residence halls, and via emotionally wrenching accounts told in confidence to counselors in crisis centers. Some will report the crimes, but many will stay silent, fearful of repercussions, convinced they won’t be believed, or that they’ll be told directly or indirectly that it must have been their own fault.
The stories have been so shocking and numerous that we now use the term “rape culture” as part of our everyday parlance to describe our societal framework. And yet, it’s not a new term, but one that goes back to the 1970s when second-wave feminist activists and documentarians worked to raise awareness about the reality of rape, to reveal that both women and men were its victims, and to examine a culture in which sexual violence was not only made invisible and therefore perpetuated, but also, seemingly, condoned. The sense then was that a culture in which sexual violence was tolerated as inevitable, even normalized, was a culture that needed to be completely overhauled.
And so history repeats itself. Are we not at the same point now, 40-odd years later, in need of a revolution? Is it that we are experiencing a re-emergence of violence, or are we simply realizing the manifestations of a complacent silence we let seep in? Do we have the wherewithal to speak out again, or do we feel so overwhelmed by the stories concerning sexual violence, by the media assaults on women, and the objectification of bodies, that we’ve become anesthetized, tolerant, in fact? Has the glorification and ever-increasing profitability of competitive sports at all levels prompted a willingness to protect the perpetrator rather than the victim, as we saw in the Steubenville case? Do we cling to the myth that rape only happens to “other people” in “other countries” and not in our own hometowns and on our college campuses? Do we adhere to the false notion that rape is a woman’s problem, and therefore a woman’s responsibility? Do we tolerate rape by pointing fingers, assuring ourselves that the victim must have been “asking for it,” “had too much to drink,” “dressed liked a slut,” “violated gender boundaries,” or was simply “guilty of making false accusations”? Do we become complacent when we make the victims bear the burden? Who bears responsibility for the state we’re in? Are we not each complicit in perpetuating the violence?
Thankfully, there are positive signs of change, of a movement underway. With the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, protection for victims of sexual and domestic violence now extends to gays, lesbians, Native Americans on tribal lands, and immigrants. Provision of services will continue, including shelters and legal assistance.
On college campuses across the country, from state schools to Ivy League institutions, students are networking via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Skype—forms of social media that have played such a dangerous role in perpetuating violence—to raise awareness of sexual violence as an epidemic and to examine the adequacy and effectiveness of campus policies to educate about sexual assault and provide needed services.
Many students are banding together to protest what they perceive as an institutional “hushing” of sexual assault cases.
In India, prompted by the outrage felt after the brutal gang rape and subsequent death of the young female medical student in Delhi last December, women and men have been flooding the streets to protest the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence against women and to demand legal reforms. Their protests are now spreading beyond India’s borders into other Asian countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.
A Nepalese woman, Anita Thapa, quoted in a recent story in The Guardian, said, “We had seen the power of the mass campaign in Delhi’s rape case. It is a pure people’s movement.” Another demonstrator, Bandana Rana, stated: “A few years back, women even talking about sexual violence or even domestic violence was very rare.”
In February, this time in Berlin, demonstrators organized what they called a “SlutWalk” to protest a Toronto police officer’s retort that women shouldn’t dress like sluts if they don’t want to be raped. What defensiveness or state of denial tolerates such a retort?
My hope is that these protests grow louder and more numerous. Voices raised in unison do make a difference, but only if the voices stay strong, and the individuals behind them stay united and vigilant.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the rate of sexual assault has, in fact, fallen since 1993. Let us make sure the decline continues. And so I extend an invitation to all of you to lend your voice to the growing numbers of women and men who want to end the egregious silence that still surrounds sexual violence.
The HOPE Center’s Take Back the Night rally is next week, Wednesday, April 17th, 6 p.m. on the steps outside of Price auditorium.
Lisette Schillig is an associate professor of English as well as the HOPE Center Director and Advisory Board Chair. She can be contacted at email@example.com