Shining light, changing attitudes

The fight to end sexual violence has made marked progress in recent years. But the fight is far from over.

CHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD/AP/FILE
UNIVERSITY OF OREGON STUDENTS ADDRESSED THE HANDLING OF ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT ON CAMPUS IN 2014.

Healthier lives, safer cities, cleaner air and water – progress always deserves applause. But progress is never a destination. Each achievement becomes a base camp for a higher climb. Take the problem of sexual assault. Fifty years ago, it was common for prosecutors, judges, and even the public to blame the victim, to argue that the way a woman dressed or behaved could invite assault. “Boys will be boys,” many lawyers argued, and many judges and juries agreed. Rape had such shame attached to it that the vast majority of victimized women and children – and sometimes men – kept quiet.

As more enlightened views have spread, rape has increasingly been seen for the criminal act it is. In the United States, reported incidents soared sixfold from 1960 to 1990. That wasn’t a surge in crime. It was victims becoming bolder about stepping forward. Since the ’90s, rape – along with all categories of crime in the US – has fallen by one-third. In 1994, some 39 people out of 100,000 were victims. In 2013, some 25 out of 100,000 were.

That’s progress. But those other categories of crime – homicide, burglary, etc. – fell by 50 percent or more in that same time period. Sexual violence still appears to be underreported, as can be seen in everything from decades-old allegations against comedian Bill Cosby to reports of date rape on campus to revelations of institutional exploitation like those detailed in the award-winning movie “Spotlight.” The shame factor, victim blaming, and a persistent tendency in polite society to sweep uncomfortable issues under the carpet continue to keep sexual assault in the shadows.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Christopher Johnston details the groundbreaking approach Cleveland has taken in assisting victims of sexual violence. Cities across the US are taking note. Among lessons learned in Cleveland: Rape victims shouldn’t be part of the general population when they seek emergency care. They need quick, empathetic, and private assistance by police and counselors. Equally important: Don’t rush to judgment of the victim, especially if drugs or lifestyle may have been involved. Sexual predators often target people at society’s margins.

The scourge of rape isn’t limited to street crime. It runs the gamut from domestic abuse to the long-standing use of it as a weapon of war. In “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” warriors don’t give a second thought to the female captives they take as war booty. That attitude is slowly changing. The world has been appalled by accounts of Islamic State’s enslavement of Yazidi women, as it was by systematic sexual violence during the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. Meanwhile, as reports of migrants in Europe sexually assaulting women have stirred anger across the Continent, a much more pervasive problem, according to Amnesty International, is the sexual exploitation of refugee women and children on their hazardous journey to Europe.

Sexual violence won’t be eradicated quickly. But each time a light shines on it, each time victims feel confident enough to come forward and society faces the issue directly and compassionately, a little more progress is made.

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