Living in a land of Sexual Violence

Living in a land of Sexual Violence

by Merle Hoffman

I have an old friend who lives in North Miami. She’s bright, solidly middle class, married and a mother. She also carries a .38 with blanks in the glove compartment of her car. The thing she wanted most as a birthday present was a “Police Zapper,” described in the Spy Shop International Brochure as the new 009 Gun with 90,000 volts of electricity and a super strong halogen light that blinds attackers temporarily, offering superb protection with additional knock down power.”

My secretary, living in Brooklyn, has developed elaborate rituals of urban defense. Rituals that are no longer conscious or strategized have become just another part of her daily routine, like brushing her teeth in the morning or putting on makeup. These include ringing her intercom and doorbell before entering what she assumes to be (yet is never quite sure) an empty apartment – -and calling out to a nonexistent person within, hoping that if in fact there is a rapist in her house, her signals will give him time to get out before she arrives.

As for doing the laundry, she never enters the room alone at night, and if she has to do it before work, she roleplays a conversation with a phantom friend who is ostensibly waiting outside in the lobby -saying things like -“I’ll be right out -the machines are empty.” She also does quick visual sweeps of the walls behind the dryers because they are so massive there is “always a possibility of someone hiding behind them.”

Another friend of mine keeps her car on the street, giving up the convenience of the garage because of her fears of being in a dark, deserted space late in the evening. She feels her chances of surviving an attack are better in the street. “At least there are street lamps and the possibility of another person seeing me run.” She says that she would rather take her chances of being hit by a car than being raped or killed.

I personally find myself altering certain plans because of time or location and have often crossed to another side of the street to avoid passing a group of men who are staring at me. Just their presence provokes a defensive reaction. And I am not alone -nor are my secretary or my friends. The thing that binds us is our continuing potential for becoming victims simply because we are women.

Nowhere was this global vulnerability writ larger than in the explosive internationally reported and analyzed “Central Park jogger case, “where the brutal attack on a lone woman runner one spring evening in New York’s Central Park thrust the reality of the multifaceted and pervasive nature of crimes of violence against women and girls into the nations living rooms and morning papers.

From the first reports of the young, white investment banker being raped, sodomized, beaten, gagged and left for dead by a group of young Black males who were “wilding” (a media created term), people have expressed outrage and astonishment at the randomness and brutality of the attack. More than a year after the crime, they still find themselves looking for answers to troubling questions in neat political packages. Having logged 3,584 reported rapes last year (FBI statistics estimate that only one out of 10 are reported), this particular rape could easily have been just one in many, lost in the endless bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. According to Linda Fairstein, chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York District Attorney’s office, “The manner in which rape cases are investigated and prosecuted has a profound influence on the enormous number of women who are victimized by sex offenders.” (N.Y. Times 6/21/90)

But the jogger case was different. She and the trial of the three young defendants accused of her rape and attempted murder became a lightening rod for a city already suffering the wounds and anxieties of ongoing racial tensions. This case was followed by another, Carol Stuart in Boston, who was murdered by her husband while pregnant (not uncommon; nearly one third of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends). While Carol Stuart was murdered simply because she was an inconvenience to her supposedly well adjusted, middle class husband, this reality was not nearly as prominent or as analyzed as the racial aspects of the case: Early on, African-American men were rounded up and questioned about the murder because Stuart’s husband recounted a gruesome tale of having witnessed a Black male murder his wife. Only later did Mr. Stuart himself become a suspect. By that time dozens of Black men had been wrongly investigated, further intensifying racial tensions in the city.

Lost in all the attacks and counter attacks of media bias against Blacks was any discussion concerning the prevalence of wife and girlfriend killing by husbands and lovers. Similarly, in the Central Park jogger case the issue of gender-biased crimes took a back seat to an analysis of race and class. While the rape was played up to excite some white people’s most primal mythological fears, that of a white, upper class woman being viciously raped by a gang of young Black “animals, mutants,” the facts are that most rapes occur within the same ethnic group and white women are more likely to be raped by white men. Women, white or Black, are also likely to be victims of gang rape, by all reports a mainly white male phenomenon. The brutal gang rape of a young woman in Big Dan’s Bar in New Bedford, MA a few years ago, the recent rape of a young student by the lacrosse team at St. John’s University, the high school jocks in Glen Ridge, NJ who used a bat to gang rape a slightly retarded girl are all examples of a culture of macho-team sexual violence that festers unchecked in our society.

In her book Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus, Peggy Reeves Sanday makes the point that rather than being an aberration, gang rapes on campuses are intrinsic, institutionalized and ritualistic forms of male bonding behavior. She reports that common names for women among male college students include “gashes,” “hosebags,” “heifers,” “scum,” “scum bucket,” “life support systems,” “beasts,” “swatches,” and “cracks,” and that “men entice one another into the act (gang rape) by implying that those who do not participate are unmanly or homosexual. The fact that the woman involved is often unconscious highlights her status as a surrogate victim in a drama where the main agents are males interacting with one another. She is defined as “wanting it” so that the men can “satisfy their urges for one another at her expense.” Sanday makes the chilling point that one of the “most important social conditions promoting gang rape has to do with the widespread tendency for college administrators to cover it up,” and the attitude that gang rape is just a rather extreme example of “boys will be boys.”

Not only are women physically, emotionally and spiritually assaulted by their attackers and the memory of the attack, the devastation and victimization continues well into the prosecution process by the criminal justice system. The woman in Big Dan’s was accused of bringing the attack on herself because she had the audacity to walk into the bar alone -and increasingly rape victims face a prejudiced and insensitive judiciary when they attempt to find justice. According to testimony offered by The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund regarding the Violence Against Women Act of 1990 (which would create a civil remedy under federal civil rights law for violent crimes motivated by the victim’s gender) an analysis of a recent series of cases revealed the following:

A five-year old victim being called an “unusually promiscuous young lady”;

A judge telling a complainant he would dismiss her case if she did not stop crying on the witness stand;

A Pennsylvania judge who declared in 1986 that a suspect was not guilty of attempted rape despite a police witness to the attack, stating to the defendant in open court, “This was an unattractive girl, and you are a good looking fellow. You did something stupid.”

This insidious tendency of victim blaming also entered the jogger case. In bars, offices, restaurants and at cocktail parties, there was one question asked about the Central Park case: What was she doing in the park at night?

The question is not what was she doing in the park at night, or even how this could possibly have happened, but when, if ever, women will be safe from sexual violence.

Rape is as American as apple pie. Women are raped by husbands, dates, boyfriends, relatives and friends of the family. They are raped in bedrooms, boardrooms, on the streets, in playgrounds and in parks. Most rapists rape 15-20 times before they are caught, and Convicted rapists have the highest recidivism rate of any criminals. If a rapist is prosecuted, there is only a three percent chance of conviction.

One woman is raped every six minutes, one out of three women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and one fifth to one half of American women are sexually abused as children, most of them by older male relatives.

Rape is a great equalizer -it has no color and no class and makes all women sisters. The same week as the Central Park attack, there were 28 other rapes or attempted rapes in New York City, nearly all of Black or Hispanic women and nearly all of which were ignored by the media. The victims that week ranged in age from eight to 51. Linda Fairstein has seen rape victims as young as a few months and as old as their 90s.

Indeed, according to trial transcripts, when the jogger screamed out in pain and panic she was told “shut up bitch;” not white bitch, not Black bitch, not rich bitch -just bitch. Rape does not exist in a vacuum -it happens because of the brutalization, subordination and degradation of women that goes on daily in our community in a thousand different ways.

From the lyrics of 2 Live Crew who sing songs about taking pride in breaking women’s vaginas and the joy of forcing anal sex on a woman, to Prince singing “We could fuck until the dawn! make love ’til your cherry’s gone,” to Guns ‘N Roses growling “I used to love her but I had to kill her,” and Andrew Dice Clay denigrating women and female sexuality as a staple of his so called “comedic” diet, to the use of women’s bodies to sell everything from cars to toothpaste, the message to America’s women is loud and clear: Women are defined by their sexuality and their sexuality is defined, controlled and commercialized by men.

According to Media Watch Vol. 4, Issue 2, the June issue of Esquire Magazine provides a supreme example of the negative objectification of the American female. In its piece entitled “The American Wife,” she is called “the hag, the rag, the bag” etc. The issue also includes an advice column entitled Your Wife: An Owner’s Manual… “From her pocket book, to her plumbing, what every husband needs to know. NO assembly required. Batteries not included.” The center spread concerns “The Last Housewife in America,” and profiles Ohio homemaker Joann Stewart “while she makes beds with hospital corners and Pine Sols toilets with a smile and a whistle.” The full page of the cheerful Stewart on her knees next to a toilet bowl is not too far off from Hustler’s “Dream Lover” sequence in which a woman’s head is forced into said bowl.

Bill Tatum, writing in the August 11 issue of the Amsterdam News, says of the Central Park jogger case that “this case and the Stuart Case in Boston will rattle around in our COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS for years to come…” He was articulating a perception by some Blacks that the jogger trial was a set up -a railroad job where the reality of the rape and the attack were continually questioned. Some went so far as to accuse the jogger of sexual orgies and drug buying to explain away the reality of a brutally raped young woman, while some went even further to question whether there was a comatose women in Metropolitan Hospital at all. Tatum further attacks the white media for what he considers to be their “totally biased and unprofessional conduct -the white media cannot be trusted to give you a fair shake when the honor of white women is at stake.”

While a history littered with the corpses of lynched Black men might naturally lead to a perception of scapegoating by some, the point of the matter is that in the Central Park jogger case, just as in the Stuart case in Boston, these women were raped, attacked and murdered simply because they were women.

There is no question of the “honor of white women” involved in the jogger case. Honor, defined in the dictionary as “good name, outward respect and privilege” was not at stake in the Central Park case. A woman’s life was at stake and almost lost in a horribly violent attack. A woman’s sexuality is not her honor. Men have historically used the concept of “women’s honor” as an excuse to protect “their property.” And because women have been viewed as the property of men, their “honor” has come to be defined purely by which men they have sex with and in what context. For women, having a good name means being a virgin, wife or mother, while whores, lesbians, or “promiscuous” women don’t qualify; outward respect is given to women who fill sexually accepted roles, and privilege is saved for mothers or wives. Shining the light on this reality does not preclude acknowledging that there were continual racist stereotypes used to describe both the Stuart and jogger cases, or that they both served to inflame racial and class tensions.

There can be no honor in a society that brutalizes women and denies them the fundamental human right to live without sexual violence -and there can be no honor in a society that inflicts racist violence against people of color and discriminates against millions of its citizens because of the color of their skins.

Acknowledging the prevalence of rape and murderous violence against women does not cancel out or minimize the reality of racism. Both speak to the necessity of struggle and change in a society where “honor” has yet to find true meaning.

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.