We Have A Problem: Sexual Violence In America

You’re on the subway. It’s packed. A man hovers close behind you but you don’t think much of it. There’s not really anywhere else to stand. As the train lurches forward, you feel a hand. You shuffle. It’s probably just a mistake, a misplaced reach. Except it’s not. You can’t ignore this foreign weight on your body, the press of him behind you. Do you scream? Do you ask for help? There’s nowhere to run.

Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Some happen right in front of us, in the train on the way to work, at a college party after a few drinks. Others occur behind closed doors at the hands of perpetrators we previously trusted: friends, family members, co-workers, teachers, mentors. The slew of recent allegations has illuminated the stark reality of gendered violence in America: We have a problem.

When numerous women came forward alleging that they had been approached by, dated, or had sexual contact with Roy Moore when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, it rocked an election that may have otherwise been a home run in Moore’s conservative home state of Alabama. Moore, a Republican and Senate candidate, is running on a platform of Christian values. The New York Times reports that people in his hometown of Gadsden knew he “liked young girls.” How then, did he rise to the point of potentially representing Alabama in the senate?

Tackling the problem of sexual violence can feel impossible because of the number of sexually violent crimes that are committed on a daily basis, because of how often women are not believed, because of the number of men in power who feel entitled to women's bodies, and because of the fact that Donald Trump has been accused of sexual harassment by at least 12 different women and was still elected President of the United States.

“I was sexually harassed by a man in a position of power over me. He was my boss and mentor, and I had always looked up to him and had a bit of a crush on him,” says Hannah. Hannah* says she never intended to act upon the distant crush because when her boss began making advances on her, she was 22 and he was 40.

“When he started changing our relationship by seeking me out outside of work, texting me frequently, asking me to go on dates with him, and eventually trying to convince me to come see him when he knew I was drunk and my decision making was impaired, I was incredibly confused. I remember being at a bar with other college students and my stomach dropping when I received texts from this 40-year-old adult I trusted: ‘I think you’re sexy.’ ‘I’m so attracted to you.’ ‘Come see me.’ ‘I’m drunk too.’”

In 1991, years before the revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s history of office aggression, sexual assault and harassment, Anita Hill went public with her own experience of workplace harassment. Her testimony against US Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas showed women that what they had previously accepted as the norm in office politics was actually unacceptable. Yet, sexual harassment remains an issue today. In 2015, Cosmopolitan surveyed 2,235 female employees and found that one in three women experienced sexual harassment at work at some point in their lives. This doesn’t always involve physical contact; harassment includes lewd photos, sexual comments in meetings, emails containing porn links. 71% of the victims in Cosmopolitan's survey said they did not report the issue. “I didn’t report him because I was afraid, because I was worried it would seem like I encouraged his actions and no one would believe me, and because he was good at his job,” says Hannah. “I’ve recently found out another woman had come forward with allegations against him; apparently this was a pattern of his. If I had told someone, I could have stopped him from doing this to someone else, stopped him from making another smart, driven woman feel small, confused, afraid, and trapped.”

It took Katie* two years to come to terms with the fact that she was raped at 21 by a 40-year-old man. “When I did realize, I didn’t want to dredge up that horrifying moment in my life anymore,” she says. “Even now, I still feel ashamed and embarrassed it has happened but I know it does not define me as a woman or as a human being. I am not damaged goods. It is not a ‘pre-existing condition.’ It’s a part of my life that I’m learning to live with, but it is not my whole life.” Katie’s story is not unique: 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. It’s likely at least one woman in your group of friends is a victim. It’s even more likely if you’re in college; you’re three times more at risk for sexual violence than the average woman while women ages 18-24 who are not in college face an increased risk of four times the average woman.

When Shannon was a college student, an older boy at a party pressured her into drinking heavily. “He carried me into his bedroom, raped me, and wouldn’t let me leave until I gave him my phone number. I ran out of the party it happened at in complete denial, mostly because my younger brother was at the same party with me and I wanted to keep my cool in front of him. My denial lasted for another six days before I made my way to the university clinic and confessed to a nurse what had happened to me.”

Morgan* did not immediately accept that she had been assaulted. “I thought it was just regretful sex for months. I realized it wasn't when I was screaming at my sister in a Gap store dressing room that I didn't want anyone to look at me. Regret doesn't hide. It just twists your gut for a second and then it's over. Violated hides. Often people point out the opposite scenario of women over-reporting regretful drunk sex as rape, but my case was the opposite and I have a terrible sick feeling I am far from alone.” Unfortunately, Morgan’s suspicion is backed by statistics. According to RAINN, out of every 1,000 rapes, only 310 incidents will be reported, and 994 of those 1,000 rapists will walk free.

Morgan didn’t report her assault because of the lack of evidence surrounding her case. Since it took her a few months to accept what happened, she did not go to a rape crisis center or a hospital, so she had no physical evidence of the attack. There were also no witnesses to corroborate her story. “Our legal system requires evidence, and I knew I didn't have anything substantial to offer. It's good that it does, but it's rough in these hazy situations because you know that you suffered at the hands of another person, you know it in your heart, but you can't prove that hurt in a court of law.” Shannon also didn’t report because of a lack of physical proof; she didn’t accept what happened for six days after the event, so she missed the window for collecting evidence. “At that point, it seemed pointless to pursue anything against him because I would have absolutely no evidence, except for maybe a few witnesses at the party. I always have regretted not reporting him though, especially after finding out that he’d assaulted many, many women, not just myself.” The burden of proof shouldn’t fall on survivors of assault, but it does.

When it comes to reporting sexual assault, there's strength in numbers. “I think the reason more and more allegations keep coming out is because someone had the courage to call bullshit," says Morgan. "When one person says hey this happened to me and it's not ok, other people finally see how f*cked up something is and maybe something that happened that they wrote off wasn't ok, so they speak up too." When one victim shares her story, it empowers others to come forward, creating the ripple effect we've seen in recent months. It often takes one loud voice to encourage others to speak up. 

“Unfortunately, men and women who sexually assault and harass people are from both sides, regardless of age, gender, or political affiliation,” says Katie. “It is sickening, though, that people continue to rally behind people like Moore or Trump or Spacey, despite when the truth comes out about who they actually are or what they have done. Then I see them attacking the victims, saying the victims should be prosecuted for staying silent for so long and I wonder how that makes sense in anyone’s mind. There is no time limit or cut off date to sexual assault and harassment. In Leigh’s case, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s been 38 years. I’m magically healed.’ It affects you for the rest of your life.” It’s important to highlight that men like Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey are not only perpetrators of sexual assault; they are pedophiles. A man who has been accused by seven women of sexual misconduct with a minor is still in the running as a serious candidate for the United States Senate. Although he has dropped in the polls since the allegations against him surfaced, 42% of the population of Alabama still wants to vote for him. We know the partisan politics of our country are problematic, but have they led people to believe voting for a child predator is permissible if the candidate falls on the right side of the aisle? Changing the culture around assault starts with changing our response to attackers and our response to the victims.

Those who have come forward with allegations in the past few months against powerful players in the political, film and entertainment industries face a new beast: belief. We’re quick to blame someone for waiting to report their assault, hasty to claim a politically motivated move. We judge without knowing the facts and without fully understanding the circumstances. We point to skirt lengths and sticky Solo cups. We ask the victim why instead of confronting the attacker's actions. What if we chose to listen? What if we chose to believe? 


If you are a victim of sexual assault or harassment, here are some organizations that can help you: 

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

National Organization for Victim Assistance

End Rape on Campus

The National Sexual Assault Hotline--800.656.HOPE (4673)

*Name has been changed.