“When was the last time you heard about a rape on campus?” asked Bob Beckel, of Fox’s talk show The Five, to the utter shock of his fellow commentators. They were discussing the University of Colorado’s release of a controversial list of ‘rape prevention tips,’ a list including such gems as “tell your attacker that you have a disease or are menstruating,” and “vomiting or urinating may also convince the attacker to leave you alone.” Rape is a worldwide epidemic: according to the 2008 UNITE to End Violence Against Women Campaign, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. In the United States, the number falls, but only marginally, to one in six, making it the 5th highest number of reported rapes per 1,000 people in the world. The Violence Against Women Act, first signed into law in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton, provides resources to combat violent crime against women in the United States. Renewed in 2000 and 2005, the VAWA is once again on the table. While the Act was supposed to be reauthorized last year, the version passed by the Senate was not brought to a vote in the House of Representatives. This year, the Act is back on the table, and after passing the Senate on the 12th of February, now faces an arduous fight in the House. The twenty-two senators who voted against the act were entirely Republican men.
Rape culture in the United States permeates every aspect of a woman’s life. From birth we are taught to be constantly afraid, constantly paranoid, lest we be caught off our guard by a monster in the dark. That monster in the dark, though, is hardly ever that. According to a United States Bureau of Justice report over 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. In a similar vein, the leading cause of injury in women ages 15 to 45 is domestic violence: one in every four women will experience assault by an intimate partner/significant other in her lifetime. About 45% of women in abusive relationships will experience sexual assault from their partner. While we are taught ways to prevent and avoid sexual assault, however, men are rarely taught the most important lesson: do not rape women. Furthermore, the stigma behind rape culture leads to severe underreporting of rape. Nine out of ten women raped on a college campus will not report the crime. And while 99% of all reported rapes are perpetrated against women, and the population of the United States is 49.3% female, less that a fifth of Congress is female. In a legislative system where women are woefully underrepresented, how can we expect meaningful progress for women’s rights? While the Violence Against Women Act does create important legislation, protections, and grant programs for victims and potential victims of sexual assault, it is only a stopgap measure meant to treat the symptoms. Until the societal view of sexual assault changes, and Americans shift from slut-shaming to teaching people not to rape, then the United States will remain mired in its epidemic.
As the leading world power, the United States should provide an example for the rest of the world. Since her inception, America has seen herself as the proverbial ‘shining city on a hill’. Why is it, then, that the United States cannot prove herself any better than countries like India, Mexico, or South Africa in the matter of violence against women? The US is sixth on Trust Law’s list of the best/worst G20 countries for women’s rights. And the recent Presidential election proved that a great many Americans do not regard women’s rights as a priority. Certainly Congress does not, as it has avoided ratifying the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for thirty-four years. For context, consider that several countries that are typically hostile towards women’s rights, such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, have ratified CEDAW. How can the United States publicly condemn the actions of the perpetrators of high-profile sexual assault cases in other parts of the world? Several of these have come to light recently, including the rape of six Spanish tourists in Mexico by armed locals on the 11th of February or the death of a young woman in Delhi following a brutal gang rape in December.
The United States is behind much of the developed world on several important fronts, including infant mortality, income equality, and minimum wage. However, the fact that it falls behind on women’s rights trumps it all. Women in the United States are still fighting for legal control of their own bodies, still subjugated, still earning only 81 cents on every dollar a man makes, even though they represent over half of all US college students. It was only this past month that the US government agreed to allow women to serve the military in combat positions. Legislative action, again, will help bring about equality, but the most important factor is changing the social status quo. This year, only three of the nine nominees for best picture and the Academy Awards pass the Bechdel test, the only rule of which is the film must feature at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Last year, only two films passed. In order for women’s equality to move forward in the United States, the phallocentric nature of American culture has to change. How else can women move into power positions? American politics is still very much a product of Old-Boy networking: out of twenty-two, only eight members of the US Cabinet are women. Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, integrated her belief that “women’s rights are human rights,” into her foreign policy making, and has always been a staunch supporter of the feminist agenda worldwide. However, she is being replaced by another old white male, in a government still mostly composed of old white men. For the Unites States to advance women’s rights both domestically and abroad, to be the shining feminist city on the hill, the status quo needs to change.