by Emily LeBlanc, SafePlace Counseling Services Manager
Every day I read the news and see a new story about rape. It’s everywhere. It seems to be the newest hot issue to write and talk about. Part of me is glad. Rape needs more attention. According to RAINN, every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted. Every 2 minutes–let’s put that in perspective.
In other news, there is an epidemic of West Nile Virus in Dallas right now. 66 people have died, half of those in Texas. That has led to a nation-wide effort, headlines on the news every night, and planes flying over dumping pesticide on the city in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. I applaud the effort. Mosquitos scare me–my sister and nieces live in Dallas, so the more prevention efforts there are to protect them, the happier I am.
But it also makes me wonder what would happen if someone were being infected with the virus every 2 minutes. What if we knew that 1 in 4 girls would be infected in college? I have 3 nieces and I’m expecting a daughter. That means statistically, I could count on 1 of the 4 not making it through college without being infected. What if we knew that 1 in 5 girls would be infected before she even left high school? What if there were 17.7 million women walking around the country right now dealing with the long-term effects of the disease every day? What if we knew that those 17.7 million women were 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to complete suicide? I’m wondering what kind of outrage we would see from our leaders and the media if West Nile virus were claiming those kinds of victims. I don’t think the response would be political. I don’t even think it would be debatable. I think the response would be humanitarian. It would likely be one of those issues that brings the country together, like so many other tragedies in our nation’s history.
The thing is, all of those statistics are true about rape. And yet somehow it has become acceptable for our leaders and the media to politicize the issue. Rather than outrage from the public and a coordinated response from our leaders, we see funding to rape crises centers being cut and the issue being debated by politicians as though it’s just another hot topic for the election.
I see the effects of rape every single day. I also see the effects of the media and candidates politicizing the issue every single day. I don’t care what your politics are. I need for you to know that when you use terms like “legitimate rape” or call rape a “method of conception” or compare the trauma of rape to “having a child out of wedlock,” you make it even more difficult for victims to find the courage to come forward. 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail. 54% of rapes will never be reported.* And allowing the dialogue to continue as it has will only see those numbers go up. There’s an old feminist tenet that the personal is political. In this case, what has become political is most definitely personal.
So I’d like to talk to the men of America. Think about the women in your life. Do you know 4 of them? Maybe you have a mom, a wife, a daughter, a boss, a co-worker, a niece. Look around and take note of the women in your life. Now consider that ¼ of them are likely a survivor of rape or attempted rape. Walk around your office or your political convention and count the number of women you see. Now consider that ¼ of those women are also survivors.
I am confident that you do not mean to make it more difficult for the women you care about to get help. I am confident that you do not intend for the language you use to make it more likely that they will be one of the thousands who chooses to end her life rather than let anyone know the hell she has experienced. But the language you use is powerful. Women live in silence every day because of fear that they won’t be believed, that they will be blamed for what has happened, or that others will think their story isn’t “legitimate.”
You can help end this unfathomable pain. Stop making this about politics. Choose the words you say carefully. Use your power and spotlight to shed light on the problem and advocate for the resources we need to really help victims. Teach your sons to respect women. Teach your daughters that you will believe them, that they deserve to be treated with respect, that they are strong and resilient, and that it’s okay to ask for help. Be a role model for the men around you. Teach your colleagues that words matter.
Now I’d like to talk to the media. You can help, too. When you write stories about female soldiers being raped and abused by their superiors, stop calling it a “sex scandal.” Call it what it is. It’s rape. When a popular football coach molests several little boys, that’s not a “sex scandal” either. Call it what it is. Don’t be scared of the words; be scared of the act and do something to stop it. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control and the worst violation of humanity that you can imagine. Give some attention to the people out there who are choosing to do and say the right things, rather than giving all of the air time to those who don’t deserve it. Shift the focus. Change the dialogue. Teach the world that words matter. At the very least, every time you do give attention to those who speak from ignorance or cover the story of another “scandal,” include a hotline number for survivors to call for help. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1.800.656.HOPE. I look forward to seeing it as part of your next headline.