Violence against women is not a new epidemic. It was set in motion with our forefathers when women were considered legally irrelevant in the eyes of the law: the property of their husband, not allowed to vote, denied access to higher education, etc. Those in power wanted to keep their power. Since then, women’s groups have fought for women’s rights and to prevent violence against women, but unfortunately many women remain victims. The #metoo and #whyIdidn’treport movements bring to light the mistreatment of these victims and remind us that as a society, we have a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and not blame the victims.
The first group of women to act was the suffragists who fought beginning in the mid-19th century to gain rights for women, one of the largest being the right to vote. After 72 years, they succeeded in gaining the right for women to vote in 1920, after which time their efforts largely subsided. In the 1960s, as more women were entering the workforce and embarking on careers outside of the home—another perceived attempt at taking power and positions previously held by men—led to a second wave of women activists. This wave was motivated by the sexual exploitation of women in the workplace, as well as inequality in pay (which continues to this day). This movement also sought to prevent violence against women. The efforts of these women and this movement have gone in ebbs and flows for many reasons, ranging from women not thinking they need to support each other, to national headlines of abuse of women. In 1994, Sen. Joseph R. Biden along with Rep. Louise M. Slaughter sponsored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The act was an initiative motivated by the Anita Hill hearings. This act has been up for renewal many times since its enactment. It has always had bi-partisan support, this year however, with the political climate what it is, it seems to be missing the same kind of support.
Our society is clearly in a critical state of dysfunction, as evidenced by the #metoo and the #whyIdidntreport movements and those in power blaming the victims. Some look to these movements and say the system is broken; the system has failed. I would argue society has failed. The stigma surrounding being sexually assaulted can’t be fixed by the criminal justice system. A one-year sentence for a sexual assault conviction that amounts to three months served and 9 months’ probation does not fix this problem.
You can’t fix the stigma associated with sexual assault with jail time. The problem gets fixed when society acknowledges that it is not the victim’s fault, and no means no, period. The victim cannot be made to feel as if it is her or his fault. In our current system, prosecutors are forced to evaluate whether a sexual assault case stood a chance of ending with a defendant being held accountable. Sadly, the victim’s credibility and stability are keys to whether a case should move forward. The Victims Assistance Unit often has to work with the victim, before, during, and after the trial because, in reality, the victim is victimized a second time by the adversarial process and defense counsel.
As we are seeing in the #whyIdidntreport movement, the reasons vary for why a victim didn’t come forward, but they all come down to the victim being afraid of people viewing them as promiscuous or immoral, or a liar, and not wanting to be victimized again by having to relive the assault. As a society, there has to be a better way to treat victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. We have to decide the victims should be taken care of, not reoffended. Those who prey on women, especially men, wielding some sort of power over them, whether size, money, or prestige, must be held accountable and seen as the wrongdoer. The reality is that about two out of three sexual assaults go unreported.
As a society, can’t we treat victims of sexual assault with compassion and support?