The Political/Social Context of Sexual Assault

By Claire Kaplan, UVA Sexual Assault Educator

Sexual violence has always been a problem. With increasing knowledge of the prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. and the world, more and more people are growing aware that it exists even within their own communities. One result of that awareness is an increase in services and protections for victim/survivors. However, it is important to place sexual violence within a context of society and its structure, for this form of assault has an impact well beyond the individual or even close friends and family members.

Current estimates of sexual assault in the U.S. suggest that one in three to five women and one in six to ten men are sexual assaulted in their lifetimes. In both cases, the majority of assaults occur before the age of 18. Numbers vary, because data collection has been uneven, in particular the data collection methodology of the Department of Justice (Bureau of Justice Statistics), which has modified how it gathers information. Very likely over the next few years we will see a change in statistical rates from the federal government.

But, whether one in three, one in five, or one in ten, all these numbers are unacceptable. From the therapeutic perspective, all victim/survivors must receive aid and treatment, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.

Yet the political perspective presents another angle. While the presence of sexual assault harms the entire community, women and girls are also oppressed as a class of people because of the existence of rape and other forms of sexual assault. Peggy Reeves Sanday, a noted anthropologist, has studied rape-free and rape-prone cultures around the world. She found that those societies which she deemed to be rape-free had several shared characteristics: they tended to worship male and female gods or were animistic, and the women, regardless of roles, held political and economic power equal to that of men. Their voices had equal value and their participation in leadership was considered important. Of all these societies, none were first-world, or even second-world societies; rather they typically were aboriginal tribes scattered around the world.

Until recent years, rape and other forms of sexual assault were defined as harm to the male who had an association with the female victim. So rape of a married woman was a crime against her husband, of an unmarried woman, against her father, etc. Women, viewed as property of a man, had no say in the legal or social definitions of rape until the second wave of the women's movement in the late 60's. And, until very recently, it was legal for a man to rape his wife. In Virginia, it is still legal, unless the couple is separated. If they are not married, they must have a child in common. Even then, a woman has only ten days to report the rape to authorities.

The prevalence of alcohol use in sexual assault among young people is a subject of much debate. However, experts across the board agree that alcohol does not make a person rape, anymore than it makes a person batter or even kill. Rather, substance use lowers inhibitions to feelings and attitudes already present in the assailant prior to the assault. Alcohol or drugs give a person permission to assault. Conversely, victims are more vulnerable because their judgement is impaired and because their physical ability to react to danger or threat is hampered, sometimes severely.

It is because of the feminist movement that rape, sexual assault, incest, child sexual assault, and battering, have been redefined, at least in part, to match the realities of those who live with this fear on a daily basis. Men who are victimized as adults or children experience trauma equal to that of females; however it is interesting to note that in the category of acquaintance rape/assault, when physical violence is minimal, men who experience coerced sex as adults do not seem to suffer the same degree of long-term emotional trauma that women do. Why this is so has not yet been explained, although as more research is done, we will learn more about this issue.

In part, this may have to do with the fact that most women still must struggle against a system which places them in a position of having to work harder, against difficult odds and a hostile climate, to gain acceptance in the world as human beings. Rape is an act of possession, of power, of control. It is used as a political tool in war (the Serbian "rape camps" are not a new concept; what is new is that they are institutionalized) as a means of social control and torture, and has been since the beginning of recorded history (witness the "comfort girls" in Japan and use of inmates for prostitution in Nazi concentration camps in WWII, mass rapes of hundreds of thousands of Bengali women during the Pakistani/Bengali war, rapes of school girls in Kenya, mass rapes of women by armed forces in Somalia and Guatemala), and yet only now is rape recognized as a form of political oppression and torture. Black feminists have compared the rape of women to the lynching of African-Americans.

Comparatively, the assault of a college student may seem banal, yet the impact is unmistakable. Unlike men, who also suffer individually from sexual violence, women decline job promotions, avoid using library resources at specific times, or even all the time (because of the presence of molesters in the stacks) or the University's computer facilities late at night, even avoid night courses which may be critical to their academic careers, because of the fear of rape. The effect is a form of class oppression. In the United States the frequency of sexual violence is a reminder to all women that the struggle for equality is far from over; that in the end, they are still objects, still possessions of men.