by John Stoltenberg
IN 1988 MICHAEL DUKAKIS,THEN DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR PRESIDENT, BLUNDERED INTO HIS THIRD TELEVISED DEBATE AGAINST REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE GEORGE BUSH WHEN ASKED: “IF KITTY DUKAKIS WERE RAPED AND MURDERED, WOULD YOU FAVOR AN IRREVOCABLE DEATH PENALTY FOR THE KILLER?” DUKAKIS GAVE A RAMBLING AND IRRELEVANT REPLY – ABOUT THE CRIME RATE IN MASSACHUSETTS AND “THE AVALANCHE OF DRUGS THAT’S POURING INTO THE COUNTRY.” THIS DUMBFOUNDING DISPLAY OF INSENSITIVITY DEMOLISHED FOREVER HIS DWINDLING CHANCES FOR THE PRESIDENCY. AROUND THE SAME TIME, THE BUSH CAMPAIGN WAS AIRING A TV SPOT FEATURING ONE WILLIE HORTON, A BLACK MAN CONVICTED FOR RAPE WHO HAD BEEN FURLOUGHED FROM A MASSACHUSETTS PRISON ONLY TO RAPE AGAIN. IT WAS AN INFLAMMATORY COMMERCIAL THAT MAY HAVE HELPED BOOST BUSH TO VICTORY.
To my knowledge, these are the only times the issue of rape was broached in the last presidential campaign.
This fall, political candidates of all stripes will again be slugging it out across the country, seeing who can speak most worthily to people’s troubles and fears, people’s longing for security and a better life. And likely as not, all their electioneering will again not address our national epidemic of rape.
Rape is difficult to quantify because the crime is notoriously underreported. According to a government-financed survey released by the National Victim Center in April, a criminal rape happened to 78 women in the U.S. every hour of 1990. Perhaps more to the point, almost every woman lives with the terror that a rape could sometime happen to her. There are significant odds that it already has. Research by sociologist Diana E.H. Russell based on face-to face interviews with 930 women residents of San Francisco – selected at random from a scientific probability sample of households – found that 44 percent had suffered a criminal rape or an attempted rape at least once in their lifetime. The National Victim Center study – which did not tabulate rape attempts – found that 13 percent of U.S. women have been criminally raped at least once in their lifetime. Extrapolating from both studies, there is a rape survivor population in the U.S. of somewhere between 12 million and 41 million living Americans.
Rape is a crisis of national security, if anything is. For any presidential candidate who is concerned with the safety of all the folks who live here, rape would seem to be a problem that desperately needs solving. Living in fear of forced and violent sex is much like living in a state of siege in occupied territory, yet candidates declare about defending this country’s interests against foreign aggressors. Why doesn’t local, homegrown, day-in-and-day-out sexual violence against women make it even to the bottom of their list of major social-policy questions?
Imagine candidates stumping for public office debating how best to stop rape. Imagine them inspiring us with new ideas and new programs to eliminate crimes of sexual violence completely. Imagine them promising bold and innovative leadership to set a national priority for the next four years to “denormalize” rape, refuting myths about rape through all the mass media, educating young people about personal rights and bodily integrity throughout the public school system, creating a national climate of opinion in which ending rape matters – because it gets talked about and cared about and people take it seriously. Even among groups of men there would emerge a new kind of peer pressure, discouraging rape rather than encouraging it, labeling coercive sex as one of the most not-cool things a guy can do. Imagine a candidate declaring on national TV, “As President, I will commit the resources of my administration to making the United States a rape-free zone.”
Sounds utterly farfetched, but why? – why isn’t stopping rape an election issue?
There used to be a National Center for Prevention and Control of Rape. There isn’t anymore. In 1986, because of the Reagan administration’s budget cuts, this federal agency was absorbed into another, the antisocial-and-violent-behavior branch of the National Institute for Mental Health.
There used to be a National Clearinghouse on Rape. There isn’t anymore. In 1986, it was quietly defunded.
These offices were not closed because the U.S. rape rate – which is the highest of any Western nation – had suddenly plummeted. The FBI’s acknowledged rate of criminal rapes in 1990 increased 12 percent since 1986 and 24 percent since 1981. Between 1990 and ’91 that rate rose 59 percent. So why isn’t rape an election issue? I believe there are real answers to that question – a series of interlocking explanations that, taken as a whole, signal a deep and disturbing truth about this country.
Answer #1:A lot of women don’t like to think about rape. As a strategy for survival, most women get through each day by blocking out consciousness about sexual violence. Ignorance gives the illusion of strength, and denial is like a drug. For any candidate, this is an applecart of delusion not to upset.
For a while, Dukakis’ campaign manager was Susan Estrich, an expert on rape. A tenured Harvard Law School professor, Estrich had argued in her 1987 book, Real Rape, that the law must respond not only to aggravated rape (by a stranger, for instance), but also to “simple rape” (as when a woman is victimized by a friend or acquaintance). Whatever Estrich did or did not argue once she joined the Dukakis campaign, on the subject of rape Dukakis kept mum.
There is evidence, however, that women in the electorate are becoming more inclined to acknowledge their concerns about rape. For its cover story “Women Face the ’90s,” Time magazine polled 1,000 women about which issues concerned them most. Rape ranked third (88 percent of the women said the issue was important to them), just below equal pay (94 percent) and daycare (90 percent) – somewhat more important than abortion (74 percent) and considerably more important than sexual freedom (49 percent). Notwithstanding Time’s own data, the accompanying story (cheeringly titled “Onward, Women”) did not mention the word rape once.
Today, while the abortion controversy has been pitched into presidential politicking, rape is still a campaigner’s nono. The prochoice side has generally tried to keep these two highly-charged issues – reproductive freedom and sexual violence – pristinely separate.
But that sleight of hand may prove to be a serious strategic mistake. A woman’s right to control her own body once she’s pregnant is a rather moot abstraction for those whose bodies are already impregnated through forced sex. If prochoice advocates were more candid about the social reality of forced sex, they might persuade women on the antiabortion side to reexamine their forced-pregnancy position. Moreover, if prochoice advocates were more honest about the relationship between forced sex and forced pregnancy, they might successfully put pressure on both major parties’ platforms to acknowledge women’s body rights without equivocation. So long as presidential candidates think women voters can be counted on to keep silent about their human right not to be raped, the candidates can pretend to speak to women as full citizens – and really only address men.
Answer #2: A lot of men don’t want to hear about rape. As things stand now, a candidate for elected office probably could not talk forthrightly about rape without alienating enormous numbers of men – and that’s not just because rapists, too, vote. Violence against women is perceived by campaign managers and a huge share of the electorate as a “special interest” issue, a pejorative by definition because it affects mainly women. So the trick for the campaigner is to give the appearance of concern for women’s interests – childcare, for instance – while reassuring men that all their gender-class interests will still be served.
Answer #3: To be soft on rape is to be soft on war. Rape is a significant motivating force in military strategy. Uncle Sam needs to keep man’s tastes for rape alive – in order to forge unified combat platoons across racial and class animosities to get out there and blow the heads off “the enemy.”
Military-supported brothels have long been a fixture of U.S. bases around the world, with virtually every PX proffering an ample line of pornography as well. The bodies of uncounted indigenous women, garrisoned and variously impaled in the service of our far-flung armed forces, have borne silent witness to Nietzsche’s dictum that “man should be trained for war, and woman for the recreation of the warrior.”
Throughout the course of the mudand-trenches Vietnam war, a training refrain from boot camp was widely reported: “This is my weapon, this is my gun [the man points to his crotch]; this one’s for killing, this one’s for fun.” During the high-tech Persian Gulf war, this chant reverberated as news slipped past military censors that pilots on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy had watched pornographic movies before flying bombing missions. The pedagogy was all too familiar: Inciting men’s aggression and training men to view “the other” as the enemy through sexualized hate and fear.
Electoral politics do not disrupt the status quo of militarism, and they therefore do not disrupt the status quo of rape.
Answer #4: Rape sells, so rape pays. You won’t find the prorape lobby in any Washington, D.C. office. But you will find them marketing prorape scenarios in film and video pornograpy and defending their prorape propaganda in “civil liberties” circles. Some donate generously to campaign war chests. It’s the classic American combination of free speech and free enterprise, and no candidate for office wants to catch flak from this powerful contingent. Consider, for instance, the woes of nomination contender Albert Gore when his wife, Tipper, suggested a link between sexual violence and pornographic media: The music press especially treated her like a prudish cartoon.
To really stand up forcefully to the prorape lobby, a politician would need to be unusually highminded – and have unusually deep pockets.
Answer #5: There’s a widespread belief that you can’t really do anything to end rape: “Some men will inevitably rape.
It’s probably men’s nature – knows? Rape – like death and taxes – will always be with us. The best that can be hoped is a few legal reforms, more humane treatment for victims, and – if you’re a woman – dumb luck.”
This profoundly nihilistic view is tacitly shared across most of the political spectrum from left to right. A candidate for political office won’t articulate a vision of basic change if people don’t believe in the possibility of basic change. And vice versa: People don’t believe in the possibility of basic change in part because their leaders do not want them to.
If this deafening silence continues to surround sexual violence against women, are we as a nation left to conclude that we have both the leaders and the rape rate we deserve? I fervently hope not.
President George Bush, on his way to a 1989 speech before the American Association of University Women, happened to spend some time talking with women in a runaway shelter in New York City. Hearing of the brutality of their experiences reportedly so moved him that later in his speech he made this special (and, for a male politician, quite atypical) point:
“I am angered and disgusted by the crimes against American women and the archaic and unacceptable attitudes that all too frequently contribute to those crimes…. Fundamentally, violence against women won’t subside unless public attitudes change. We must continue to educate police and prosecutors, judges and juries, and we must engender a climate where the message our children get from television and films, from schools and parents, is that violence against women is wrong.”
Fine words well spoken – but without any perceptible follow-through.
Could a campaigning presidential candidate make specific policy proposals about ending rape – and then actually achieve them if elected? I believe so. And I have several concrete ideas about where to begin.
¥ Rally the private sector. Provide presidential leadership to enlist corporations, the Advertising Council, and print and broadcast media to mount a massive public-information campaign to refute myths about rape and to encourage rape reporting. If you need to costjustify it, tally medical expenses and productivity losses due to sexual violence. Many good antirape media materials already exist. Find them, improve them if necessary, and – with clear-cut White House support – roll them out nationally.
¥Promote sex education in public schools – seriously. Call for the development and funding of comprehensive curricula that teach not just the facts of life, not just information about safer sex, but also the meaning of informed consent, together with personal selfesteem values and sexual communication skills.
¥Make rape a crime someone gets convicted for. Promise to get tough with institutions receiving federal funding; hold them accountable. Vow to withhold federal monies from colleges if they do not turn campus rape complaints over to law-enforcement agencies, and if they do not implement meaningful rapeprevention education. Use your influence to urge Congress to make rape and other forms of sexual violence prosecutable as gender-bias crimes. Beef up sexcrimes prosecutorial staffs.
¥Speak out against the pornography industry as a purveyor of prorape propaganda. Does pornography “cause” rape? From a purely scientific point of view, causality is no more or less than increased probability. Some rapes are perpetrated that might not have been committed without the influence of pornography.
Just because we can’t be certain which rapes and which pornography does not mean there is no link. Sociologist Russell, reviewing the extensive clinical and psychological evidence, points out that pornography “intensifies the predisposition” of some men to rape (and various researchers have found that 25 to 60 percent of collegeage males are already so predisposed, by their own admission). Russell also points out that pornography “undermines some men’s internal inhibitions against acting out their rape desires.”
As Russell observes, in response to those who say there is no causality in all the available evidence, “If researchers had insisted on being able to ascertain why Mr. X died from lung cancer after 20 years of smoking but Mr. Y did not before being willing to warn the public that smoking causes lung cancer, there would have been a lot more deaths from lung cancer.” Much pornography is actually a documentary of coercion and sexual abuse, and some rape-crisis centers report more and more rapes involving videotaping by perpetrators. So forget the profamily moralizing, Mr. Candidate. Speak to the real issue of human harm: Pornography that promotes rape is wrong. Pornography that is made from rape is wrong.
Then, when you’re in office, commission a Justice Department task force to eventually replace our useless hodgepodge of obscenity laws with legislation that would allow victims of pornography to sue for violations of their civil rights. Commit your administration to confront pornography as a civil-rights issue – and take the profit motive out of rape.
John Stoltenberg is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice (Penguin USA/Meridian).