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Voices / Column

It’s time to end the epidemic of sexual assault

Saxtons River

What do city subways, college dorms, and military service have in common? They are all venues for the vulnerable when it comes to sex assaults.

The latest horror stories come from women in New York who’ve been ogled, groped, flashed, harassed, splashed with ejaculate, and attacked on subways or in subway stations. One recent account involved a woman who was forced off a train and managed to escape only when she was able to push an alarm button as her assailant dragged her along the platform.

The city, trying to deal with the situation, has proposed a law to upgrade unwanted sexual contact from a misdemeanor to a felony and to turn “sexually motivated touching” into a sex crime with possible jail time.

But one woman advocate says she isn’t convinced it will help much.

“The most lamentable aspect of taking public transportation as a woman is enduring the unsavory boys and men who exploit the shared space and put our safety in jeopardy,” Mandy Van Deven wrote in The Guardian.

“Women understand that most men don’t engage in this brand of sexual violence. But the number of guys who are doing these things is sizable enough to make most women uneasy during our commutes.”

* * *

The seriousness of the sexual assault epidemic on university and college campuses is garnering much needed attention thanks to recently released guidelines promulgated by the White House.

Aimed at forcing academic institutions to aggressively combat sexual assaults, the recommendations call for anonymous surveys, anti-assault policies, and greater confidentiality for those reporting crimes.

The administration wants Congress to pass further measures to enforce the recommendations and levy penalties for failure to comply. It has also proposed a website to track enforcement and provide victims with information.

“No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist,” Vice President Joe Biden said when the steps were announced. “We need to give victims the support they need and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

For Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger that’s good news, but it’s money-where-mouth-is time.

Sulkowicz was raped by a fellow student while at Columbia University. A university official interrogated her about the sex act that occurred, suggesting that it was physically impossible as described. The panel dismissed her accusation, even though there had been other sexual assault complaints against the same man.

“Has anything ever happened to you that was just so bad you felt like you became a shell of a human being?” Sulkowicz asked a New York Times reporter when sharing her story.

Bolger’s rape occurred when she was at Amherst College, where a dean “encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on,” she recalls. “He advised me to take time off and wait for my rapist to graduate.”

Another Amherst student survivor was forced into a psychiatric ward and forbidden to study abroad or write a senior thesis. She ultimately withdrew.

One in five women is sexually assaulted in college, according to one survey, and 55 prestigious colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence.

The White House initiative is “a meaningful first step,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), but more needs to be done. “There is a sense this isn’t really a crime, that there is no harm. Well, it’s a felony and it is harmful.”

* * *

Meanwhile, sexual assault in the military continues apace. A new Pentagon report reveals that between June 2012 and June 2013, more than 3,500 reports of sexual assault were reported, a 43-percent increase in one year.

During that year, soldiers were 15 times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by an enemy, a statistic that even the Pentagon calls “startling.”

The military seems baffled about how to handle the growing epidemic, despite new oversight and assistance programs. And it is clearly embarrassed by ongoing high-level disasters, like the fact that more than 30 Air Force instructors are being investigated for assaults on trainees at a Texas base.

New legislation has been proposed which would standardize guidelines for punishment for sexual-assault convictions, but it might be too little too late.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said that the military “may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime — and the perception that there is tolerance of it — could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out [our] mission, and to recruit and retain the good people we need.”

* * *

It’s hard for victims in the military to take things into their own hands, but college students and subway riders are fighting back.

Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger helped launch a national network of students who have established an educational and advocacy website called Know Your IX, referring to Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity on campus and the right to an education unimpeded by violence and harassment.

And in New York, advocates for subway safety formed an organization, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, which supports a bill requiring police to collect data on sexual harassment in subways.

What do these groups have in common? The belief that no one should have to “forgive and forget” when sexual violence occurs — anywhere, to anyone.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #257 (Wednesday, June 4, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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