The only people denying the war on women are those waging it, but it’s been raging so long that many are tired of the headlines. Sure, there’s an occasional flare up, a battle worthy of our momentary attention, but most of the time we’re too busy living to care.
While the soldiers are out there, bleeding and dying for our rights, we scroll our Facebook feeds, decide what we’re having for dinner, and roll our eyes while picking up another pair of socks dropped casually on the bedroom floor. We’re conscious of the chatter around rape culture, pay inequality, and the laws restricting women’s reproductive rights, but for women edging fifty, or already over that mythical hump, many of the issues are no longer personally relevant. Focused on private battles, we let the die-hard generals and fresh recruits fight the war. Worse, as Molly Redden’s recent article in Mother Jones illuminated, many feel the war against women has been fought and lost.
Women of all ages are simply giving up. Last week, a twenty-six year old woman told me that she and her friends consider rape a right of initiation because so many have experienced it. Want to grow up? Go to college? Be part of the sisterhood? Easy, show up where you’re not supposed to, wear something your mother cautioned you against, have a few drinks and voila! Rape. Now you’re in; welcome to the wonderful world of womanhood in the 21st century.
A new study by the American Association of Universities confirmed what most us already knew. 23% of the 150,000 college women who participated in the study are victims of sexual assault. The majority, a whopping 58.6%, never reported the event. Why? Because they didn’t think it was serious enough.
In a Facebook response to this study, John Foubert, national president of One in Four, an organization dedicated to the prevention of rape, joined critics of the study when he said, “Many of the statistics that are widely cited in the public about sexual violence are of ‘rape or attempted rape’ — I believe rightfully so. Those are the most serious types of sexual violence, and also, based on my experience, those most likely to result in PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]. When we throw ‘unwanted sexual contact’ into the mix, we risk equating a forced kiss (which is a bad thing obviously) with rape (which is a fundamentally different act).”
He’s right. Unwanted touching and rape are different — kind of like macaroni and spaghetti. Use a different sauce and it’s an entirely different meal. Foubert’s distinction minimizes the bigger issue and implies that men kissing women, groping their breasts, or grabbing their asses against their will aren’t serious enough to be considered the sexual assaults they are. It’s surprising, even mildly terrifying, that a man in charge of an organization dedicated to preventing rape cannot recognize that his words make him part of the problem. He reminds us, yet again, how it’s up to others to teach women what is and is not acceptable and demonstrates why many women don’t take an assault on their body seriously. His kind of reasoning is precisely why marital rape was still legal in some states until 1993 (three years after my twins were born).
Here’s the thing. All sexual assault is serious and Foubert’s language is downright dangerous because in separating rape from other acts of sexual violence he reaffirms the myth that women’s bodies aren’t their own. The prevalence of this myth denies women the support they need to come forward, get help, and hold those responsible accountable.
Failure to do so can be catastrophic. In the best circumstances, the long term effects of rape wreak havoc on the lives of victims and their families. I know. I was raped at 19 and didn’t report it or seek help. Now part of the silent sisterhood (68% of women never report being raped), I was paralyzed by shame. I was also convinced that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Unable to stomach the thought of invasive police questioning or the likelihood that my complaint wouldn’t go anywhere, I simply put it behind me and moved on. Unfortunately, part of me got stuck that night and the assault determined the course of my life. Shame never dissipated. It intensified. Unexplained anxiety and nightmares made me think I was losing my mind. When a flashback hit me out of nowhere, it almost destroyed me and the man I love.
We are mothers and role models. We are battle weary and worn. And we are the ones who know what happens when women silence themselves. We live it every day. As we age, the issues compound. Bleeding profusely from old wounds and new (invisibility, declining employment opportunities, and aging parents to name a few) most of us just want to make it through the day. And yet, now more than ever, we have to show up and engage for if we don’t the war will be lost and with it the hope of young women, which we once contained.