“If you see something, say something. That paranoid punchline of a public service campaign has worked: Nobody looks the same way at a stray backpack on the subway, and we just might call the cops,” says Columbia Journalism School Professor Nina Burleigh, responding to several recent instances of rape and violence against women in the United States.
“Sadly, the same adage doesn’t apply to young American men and women watching guys strip and violate a drunken (or sober) female. By now, we’ve all absorbed the main lesson of Steubenville: The dehumanization of the female is so pervasive that young people will stand by and not just watch rape, but laugh at it, video it, tweet it, post it to Facebook and try to cover their tracks when police investigate,” Burleigh says.
The recent spike in cases of rape and other brutalities against women in the U.S. have been noted, and are puzzling. Why — in almost a half century since the Feminist Movement in the U.S., are we seemingly going backwards? With women being brutalized on the individual level and their rights being placed on the chopping block on the political level, does this signal a new wave of feminist activism is needed to turn back the most recent tide of oppression aimed at women?
Recent acts of violence against women on the rise
In Torrington, Conn., recently two 18-year-old high school football players were arrested, accused of the statutory rape of two 13-year-old girls. Friends of the suspects came to their defense, attacking the girls on Twitter.
Many parallels were drawn between the Connecticut case and a similar incident in Steubenville, Ohio which resulted in two high school football stars being found guilty earlier this year of raping a 16-year-old girl in 2012. The case drew national attention for the way social media spurred the initial prosecution and later helped galvanize national outrage. The young victim did not remember what had happened, however dozens of text messages and pictures taken with cell phones provided evidence of the attack.
And just last week news broke of California teen, 15-year-old Audrie Potts, who killed herself eight days after she was raped after passing out at a house party. Photos of her sexual
attacked were posted online and she wrote on Facebook that her life was ruined since the whole school knew what had happened to her.
Robert Allard, the attorney representing Pott’s family, said that Pott’s classmates used cellphones to share photos of the attack, and said that the images went viral.
A similar incident was also reported in Canada, Rehtaeh Parsons, another high schooler, committed suicide after her gang rape was videotaped and distributed in her community. She moved and transferred schools to escape ridicule from her classmates. “People texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?’” her mother, Leah Parsons told reporters. “Girls texting, saying ‘You’re such a slut.’”
Connecting the dots
Researchers believe group sexual assaults are on the rise, especially among young people.
Could this be connected with the ‘war on women’ and other top-level political policy discussions aimed at curtailing the rights of women?
The “war on women” emerging during the 2012 election cycle saw a wide range of policy efforts introduced to place restrictions on women’s health care and erode protections for women and their families.
Measures at the state and federal level aimed at curtailing women’s rights have included restricting contraception; cutting funding for Planned Parenthood; state-mandated, medically unnecessary ultrasounds; abortion taxes; abortion waiting periods; forcing women to tell their employers why they want birth control, and prohibiting insurance companies from including abortion coverage in their policies.
Also, during the 2012 United States election cycle, in federal and state elections, a series of controversies arose as a result of statements by Republican Party candidates’ comments about rape, pregnancy, contraception, abortion and related topics.
For example, Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri, told a local television station, in explaining his stance that abortion should not be allowed even in the case of rape: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Many found the idea that pregnancy does not result from rape, as well as the phrase, “legitimate rape,” demeaning, in addition to being utterly false.
Akin’s comments had a far-reaching political impact, changing the focus of political campaigns across the country to the so-called “war on women.”
Both the Republican and Democratic Party denounced Akin and his comments. The Republican camp also pulled funds from his campaign and discouraged him from running for office after the comments he made.
Both presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, also publicly condemned Akin’s sentiments.
However, following Akin’s comments, additional controversies arose concerning other remarks made by various Republicans. The most notable of these was Indiana State Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who said that pregnancy from rape was “something that God intended.”
Some analysts identified Mourdock’s and Akin’s comments, as well as those of various other candidates, as a principal factor in their election losses. But could these sentiments reflect a an underlying disrespect for women in American culture?
West Virginia Teen speaks out
Just this week, several fellow alumnae from my alma mater, Wellesley College, shared with me via Facebook the story of West Virginia high school senior Katelyn Campbell, who objected to her school’s abstinence-only “slut-shaming” sex education presentation and suppression of any available information about birth control.
George Washington High School, where Campbell is a student, recently hosted conservative speaker, Pam Stenzel, an abstinence-only supporter. Stenzel has a history of using inflammatory rhetoric to get her message across. At the assembly, Stenzel allegedly told students “if you take birth control, your mother probably hates you” and “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.”
She also asserted that condoms aren’t safe, and every instance of sexual contact will lead to a sexually transmitted infection. Campbell refused to attend the assembly and filed a complaint with the ACLU.
Her school’s principal threatened to call Wellesley College, where she had been accepted, and complain about her ‘bad character.’
News spread over Facebook and Twitter, with current Wellesley students and alumnae offering support.
The school officially tweeted ‘Katelyn Campbell, #Wellesley is excited to welcome you this fall.'”
Activism like that being undertaken by Ms. Campbell is heartening in this age of political warfare and personal attacks on women.
Hopefully more young women like Campbell will step forward and speak out to prevent incidents like the ones in Ohio, Connecticut, California, Canada and countless other places from being repeated.