Living in a land of Sexual Violence
I have an old friend who lives in North Miami. She's bright, solidly middle class, married and a mother. She also carries a .38 with blanks in the glove compartment of her car. The thing she wanted most as a birthday present was a "Police Zapper," described in the Spy Shop International Brochure as the new 009 Gun with 90,000 volts of electricity and a super strong halogen light that blinds attackers temporarily, offering superb protection with additional knock down power."
My secretary, living in
As for doing the laundry, she never enters the room alone at night, and if she has to do it before work, she roleplays a conversation with a phantom friend who is ostensibly waiting outside in the lobby -saying things like -"I'll be right out -the machines are empty." She also does quick visual sweeps of the walls behind the dryers because they are so massive there is "always a possibility of someone hiding behind them."
Another friend of mine keeps her car on the street, giving up the convenience of the garage because of her fears of being in a dark, deserted space late in the evening. She feels her chances of surviving an attack are better in the street. "At least there are street lamps and the possibility of another person seeing me run." She says that she would rather take her chances of being hit by a car than being raped or killed.
I personally find myself altering certain plans because of time or location and have often crossed to another side of the street to avoid passing a group of men who are staring at me. Just their presence provokes a defensive reaction. And I am not alone -nor are my secretary or my friends. The thing that binds us is our continuing potential for becoming victims simply because we are women.
Nowhere was this global vulnerability writ larger than in the explosive internationally reported and analyzed "Central Park jogger case, "where the brutal attack on a lone woman runner one spring evening in New York's Central Park thrust the reality of the multifaceted and pervasive nature of crimes of violence against women and girls into the nations living rooms and morning papers.
From the first reports of the young, white investment banker
being raped, sodomized, beaten, gagged and left for dead by a group of young Black
males who were "wilding" (a media created term), people have
expressed outrage and astonishment at the randomness and brutality of the
attack. More than a year after the crime, they still find themselves looking
for answers to troubling questions in neat political packages. Having logged
3,584 reported rapes last year (FBI statistics estimate that only one out of 10
are reported), this particular rape could easily have been just one in many,
lost in the endless bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. According to
Linda Fairstein, chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution
Unit in the New York District Attorney's office, "The manner in which rape
cases are investigated and prosecuted has a profound influence on the enormous
number of women who are victimized by sex offenders." (N.Y. Times
But the jogger case was different. She and the trial of the three young defendants accused of her rape and attempted murder became a lightening rod for a city already suffering the wounds and anxieties of ongoing racial tensions. This case was followed by another, Carol Stuart in Boston, who was murdered by her husband while pregnant (not uncommon; nearly one third of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends). While Carol Stuart was murdered simply because she was an inconvenience to her supposedly well adjusted, middle class husband, this reality was not nearly as prominent or as analyzed as the racial aspects of the case: Early on, African-American men were rounded up and questioned about the murder because Stuart's husband recounted a gruesome tale of having witnessed a Black male murder his wife. Only later did Mr. Stuart himself become a suspect. By that time dozens of Black men had been wrongly investigated, further intensifying racial tensions in the city.
Lost in all the attacks and counter attacks of media bias
against Blacks was any discussion concerning the prevalence of wife and
girlfriend killing by husbands and lovers. Similarly,
In her book Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus, Peggy Reeves Sanday makes the point that rather than being an aberration, gang rapes on campuses are intrinsic, institutionalized and ritualistic forms of male bonding behavior. She reports that common names for women among male college students include "gashes," "hosebags," "heifers," "scum," "scum bucket," "life support systems," "beasts," "swatches," and "cracks," and that "men entice one another into the act (gang rape) by implying that those who do not participate are unmanly or homosexual. The fact that the woman involved is often unconscious highlights her status as a surrogate victim in a drama where the main agents are males interacting with one another. She is defined as "wanting it" so that the men can "satisfy their urges for one another at her expense." Sanday makes the chilling point that one of the "most important social conditions promoting gang rape has to do with the widespread tendency for college administrators to cover it up," and the attitude that gang rape is just a rather extreme example of "boys will be boys."
Not only are women physically, emotionally and spiritually assaulted by their attackers and the memory of the attack, the devastation and victimization continues well into the prosecution process by the criminal justice system. The woman in Big Dan's was accused of bringing the attack on herself because she had the audacity to walk into the bar alone -and increasingly rape victims face a prejudiced and insensitive judiciary when they attempt to find justice. According to testimony offered by The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund regarding the Violence Against Women Act of 1990 (which would create a civil remedy under federal civil rights law for violent crimes motivated by the victim's gender) an analysis of a recent series of cases revealed the following:
A five-year old victim being called an "unusually promiscuous young lady";
A judge telling a complainant he would dismiss her case if she did not stop crying on the witness stand;
This insidious tendency of victim blaming also entered the
jogger case. In bars, offices, restaurants and at cocktail parties, there was
one question asked about the
The question is not what was she doing in the park at night, or even how this could possibly have happened, but when, if ever, women will be safe from sexual violence.
Rape is as American as apple pie. Women are raped by husbands, dates, boyfriends, relatives and friends of the family. They are raped in bedrooms, boardrooms, on the streets, in playgrounds and in parks. Most rapists rape 15-20 times before they are caught, and Convicted rapists have the highest recidivism rate of any criminals. If a rapist is prosecuted, there is only a three percent chance of conviction.
One woman is raped every six minutes, one out of three women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and one fifth to one half of American women are sexually abused as children, most of them by older male relatives.
Rape is a great equalizer -it has no color and no class and
makes all women sisters. The same week as the
Indeed, according to trial transcripts, when the jogger screamed out in pain and panic she was told "shut up bitch;" not white bitch, not Black bitch, not rich bitch -just bitch. Rape does not exist in a vacuum -it happens because of the brutalization, subordination and degradation of women that goes on daily in our community in a thousand different ways.
From the lyrics of 2 Live Crew who sing songs about taking pride in breaking women's vaginas and the joy of forcing anal sex on a woman, to Prince singing "We could fuck until the dawn! make love 'til your cherry's gone," to Guns 'N Roses growling "I used to love her but I had to kill her," and Andrew Dice Clay denigrating women and female sexuality as a staple of his so called "comedic" diet, to the use of women's bodies to sell everything from cars to toothpaste, the message to America's women is loud and clear: Women are defined by their sexuality and their sexuality is defined, controlled and commercialized by men.
According to Media Watch Vol. 4, Issue 2, the June issue of
Esquire Magazine provides a supreme example of the negative objectification of
the American female. In its piece entitled "The American Wife," she
is called "the hag, the rag, the bag" etc.
The issue also includes an advice column entitled Your Wife: An Owner's
Manual... "From her pocket book, to her plumbing, what every husband needs
to know. NO assembly required. Batteries not included." The center spread
concerns "The Last Housewife in
Bill Tatum, writing in the August 11 issue of the Amsterdam
News, says of the
While a history littered with the corpses of lynched Black
men might naturally lead to a perception of scapegoating
by some, the point of the matter is that in the
There is no question of the "honor of white women"
involved in the jogger case. Honor, defined in the dictionary as "good
name, outward respect and privilege" was not at stake in the
There can be no honor in a society that brutalizes women and denies them the fundamental human right to live without sexual violence -and there can be no honor in a society that inflicts racist violence against people of color and discriminates against millions of its citizens because of the color of their skins.
Acknowledging the prevalence of rape and murderous violence against women does not cancel out or minimize the reality of racism. Both speak to the necessity of struggle and change in a society where "honor" has yet to find true meaning.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.
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