I worked for many years as a reporter in upstate New York, where I covered local news like school board meetings and did features on things like watercolor exhibits at one-room libraries in one-traffic-light villages.
It is easy to imagine this kind of bucolic existence falls outside of real world problems. Clusters of rural towns separated by fields and forests that fall along narrow, poorly maintained highways flanked with big box stores do not easily lend themselves to images of large-scale international epidemics of socially sanctioned violence against women. But places like this across the United States are just as intrinsically linked to these crimes and suffer the same precipitating economic and social factors that increase sexualized violence across the third world. Poverty, substandard education, enormous wealth stratification, environmental problems, and tacit social acceptance of women as second class citizens are not issues relegated to places like Bosnia, Sudan, Libya, and Bangladesh.
While I was writing about watercolor exhibits, I was also writing about economic and environmental problems and trying to get the chief of police to release the police blotter—something he didn’t think was a good idea because, as he put it “the only thing on the blotter is ‘domestics,’ not real crimes.” He said in a town that small you don’t want to read about what your neighbor is doing.
I already had a good idea what my neighbors were doing because I had reported for a daily newspaper in a nearby county. I would drive to the state police office at six in the morning and pick up the blotter. Nearly every single day, I leafed through incident reports of real crimes; domestic violence, molestation, assault, and rape. The only other crime as common was driving while intoxicated. Just before I moved away from the area another one of my “neighbors” cut his wife’s throat and let her bleed to death on a running trail. Most little town crimes against women don’t make national news, and clearly many don’t even make it to the local paper.
But last year, national attention was paid to a little town like this: Cleveland, Texas, where the per capita income is $14,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and where farms and forests dot the landscape and sports enthusiasm and outdoor entertainments provide the core of social life.
We know the name Cleveland, Texas, because of the brutally violent sexual assault of an 11-year old child that happened there in November of 2010, and the subsequent media coverage and victim blaming that went on in the aftermath of the assault.
The old chestnut of “blaming the victim” is really another way to say “protecting the perpetrator,” and this issue, which goes far beyond any newspaper coverage, is the one I find most concerning.
In reading or watching news reports about rape and sexual assault we are accustomed to hearing lots of data. Stats like: Every two minutes a woman is raped; three or four women a day are murdered by their intimate partners; the majority of cases of sexual assault and molestation go unreported and 15 out of 16 rapists never spend a day in jail. Citing these statistics has simply become a convention when educating the public about this serious issue.
And the data always focuses on the victim or the numbers of victims. We can all live in fear of this thing called rape, this threat of violence that looms above us, these seemingly individual and unrelated acts that happen all day long. And we live with the knowledge that when we speak to an American woman there is a one in four chance she has been sexually assaulted—that this is in her past and may have somehow formed her character or colored her experiences in the world.
But what if the data focused on the perpetrator? What if the numbers were turned around so that we knew what percentage of men are rapists? How many people we talk with and deal with in our daily lives have sexually assaulted a person? What percentage of men are we walking among who have physically attacked their partners? How many beside us, sitting at their desks or across from us on the subway, working in the trades or behind counters or in entertainment? How many people do we bump into, in the crush of picking up our children from day care, or at a cocktail party? How many of them are rapists?
In reporting last March about the gang rape of the 11-year-old Texas girl, The New York Times tells us via quotes from townspeople that the girl “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup” and that she hung around with teenage boys on the playground. And while this reveals quite alarmingly the attitudes of the locals, the reporter did not apparently look for or couldn’t find townspeople to give specifics about the men and boys who raped this child and documented their crimes on video. We know one of the rapists is a middle schooler, some of them are athletes, some of them are grown men. But their habits, their manner of dress, and their families are in no way called into question. No one is quoted as wondering what their parents were thinking to let them gang rape, or photograph, and film a child who is suffering.
How can this be? Do we believe it’s normal for men to rape, but simply something we never say out loud? Given just the data on victims and the fact that fewer than 39 percent of rapes are reported in the United States—we can easily extrapolate that a large number of people we interact with are rapists. The same guy isn’t assaulting hundreds of thousands of women every year.
We are conscious of the friends or partners we’ve known who’ve been raped—but we rarely allow ourselves to take in the fact that we know and interact with rapists on a daily basis, that given the statistics, many of us may have acquaintances, friends, and relatives who have raped someone in their lifetime.
And yet rape and sexual assault are still treated as though they are individual, unrelated acts of violence against specific victims—unless they’re in places like Congo or Sudan, in which case the individuals are disappeared into a faceless number called “mass rape.” Either way, somehow, the perpetrators of the crimes and the culture they inhabit are left out of the discussion. It's like believing cigarettes are unrelated to cancer and poverty is simply a large group of folks just down on their luck. You can't fix a problem if you don't want to figure out what's causing it.
Each culture Women Under Siege is examining contains differing attitudes about gender that help create rapists. Whether it's because of feelings of inferiority in Rwanda or a crushing sense of powerlessness because of poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo, men who rape do so when society falters.
Accepting that what happens here, in the U.S., and in other Western societies is not all that different at its base from what is going on in conflict zones can help us better understand that we are part of this world, part of this problem, and part of the solution. We can name the perpetrators wherever they are and come closer to finding justice for these crimes.
The Times and other media outlets could go a long way toward changing the trend by simply asking the questions in cases of rape—what are these boys or men like? What do they do? Who do they associate with? Who are their role models? How are their family lives? What’s the culture like in their hometown? What’s the per capita income? How much education do they have? How do they treat girls and women? What are their fathers like?
Seeing rapists is essential for us to understand and fight against the culture of rape. We need to recognize the fact that there are more than just hundreds of thousands of victims out there. We need to understand that there are hundreds of thousands of perpetrators. Only then will we see the real work ahead of us. Only then will we understand the magnitude of this fight.
Women Under Siege is a Women's Media Center initiative spearheaded by Gloria Steinem on sexualized violence in conflict.