This election season, women decisively rejected the obscene way the word “rape” was used in the service of proving ideological purity. Now that election season is finally over, we have the opportunity to work together to confront this profound violation of human dignity. We can change things so that one in six women will no longer experience rape or sexual assault in our lifetimes, the vast majority at the hands of our intimate partners, family members, and acquaintances.
During the past few months, it was nearly impossible to listen to the news, surf the web, or check facebook without being inundated with reductionist visions of what rape is. This discussion nauseated those of us who work against gender-based violence, support close friends and family members who are survivors, or are survivors ourselves. No matter our views on the ultimate legality or morality of abortion in the case of rape, we recognized that the dignity of women was simply not a part of the discussion.
In response, we used our votes to deprive the candidates who most egregiously cheapened the reality of sexual violence of what would have otherwise been easy victories. Defeated Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin parroted the well-known “science” in some extremist circles that somehow women do not get pregnant from rape, regurgitating the junk science that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Richard Mourdock lost his all-but-assured bid for Indiana’s open Senate seat when he engaged in cheap theodicy: “when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
This year, our society began talking about “rape” with an absolute disregard for the women who have actually been raped. But now that this conversation has started, we can transform it by taking concrete steps to support survivors of rape and sexual assault. We can reject secrecy and silence and bring the full reality of this violence out into the open. We can make it impossible for violators to continue to hold power over those they victimize.
First, we all need to pressure Congress to immediately reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Today is a national day of action to pass VAWA. This landmark bill—passed through the cooperation of then-Senator Joe Biden and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch—caused a sea change in how our society deals with gender-based violence. But, the Republican House of Representatives has blocked reauthorization, instead passing a version that would take away existing provisions that protect immigrant women and that would not extend protection to LGBTQ people and American Indians, as the Senate version does.
The failure to reauthorize VAWA jeopardizes the life and dignity of women like those I served as an immigration domestic violence paralegal through a Catholic volunteer program. Woman like Blanca, who came back to the United States because her daughter told her that it would be safer here because at least the police would come when (not if) the father/estranged husband attacked Blanca again. They did return to the US, and, after a near-fatal rape and stabbing, local law enforcement put her abuser in jail for more than a decade and helped her get immigration relief through a then-bipartisan program that helps survivors of violent crime.
Second, we can ensure that rape survivors who choose to continue their pregnancies never have to fight for custody and visitation rights with rapist fathers, as they currently do in 31 states. When Shauna Prewitt was a senior at the University of Chicago, she was raped. Finding herself pregnant, she chose to raise this child, but she was stunned when the rapist father sought custody of her baby girl. She earned her law degree from Georgetown to get the tools necessary to fight for the legal protections that survivors of rape currently lack. In her open letter to Todd Akin, she writes:
I believe that the way we as a society, and especially legislators, speak about rape—often wrongly and without a sound, reasoned basis—restricts our ability to pass laws offering meaningful protections. After all, why pass a law restricting the parental rights of men who father through rape when too many legislators argue (without any reliance on science, fact, or experience) that “legitimately raped” woman never would decide to raise a child from that crime? Why pass a law when raped women cannot get pregnant from their rapes?
Prewitt’s article, Giving Birth to a “Rapist’s Child”: A Discussion and Analysis of the Limited Legal Protections Afforded to Women Who Become Mothers Through Rape, should be required reading for everyone concerned about human dignity and the common good.
Finally we need to stop acting as if sexual violence was rare. All of us know many survivors, even if we are unaware of this fact. During the year that I worked as a paralegal, I shared my stories of helping undocumented immigrant women with a priest who was a long-time family friend. He shared his stories of the financially well-off women who came to him for counseling and reconciliation. In both of our ministries we saw more commonalities than differences: the family members who do not believe their stories; the police who refuse to make reports; the decision women make to stay because they are afraid of losing custody of their children; and the family, parish, and community rejection they experience. We saw how gender-based violence transcends race, class, culture, education level, and geography, disfiguring all of our communities. We saw that the biggest enabler of continued violence was silence and denial.
Rape remains rape. Period. Instead of redefining it or hiding it, our first step must be to simply listen to the stories of our sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, girlfriends, and friends. But then we need to raise our voices and act. This transcends any category of pro-life or pro-choice and is simply the defense of our common human dignity.
* Although this article is focused on the experience of women, men are also victims of sexual violence, with at least 3% of all men experiencing sexual assault in their lifetimes. This violence must also be exposed, denounced, and ended.