In his new HBO special, comedian Louis C.K. articulates how women have been and continue to be alarmingly at risk of violence from men. “The courage it takes for a woman to say yes [to a date with a man] is beyond anything I can imagine. A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane, and ill-advised,” he says (see video at right). “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat! To women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them!”
He goes on to make an apt analogy: “If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion. ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice! I hope he doesn’t do what he’s going to do.’”
The bit is funny, but it’s also tragically on point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five U.S. women experiences rape at some point in her life. More than 42 percent of female rape victims were first raped before age 18, and nearly 30 percent of female rape victims were first raped between the ages of 11 and 17. And yet we continue to treat victims with skepticism, shift blame onto them, and publicly shame them because of their victimization. This holds true for woman who have been sexually violated and young girls who have been sexually victimized.
Take, for instance, the recent string of teen girls who were gang raped by fellow students and then taunted and ridiculed as a result of the attacks.
Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons, both 15 years old, were gang raped by young men who proceeded to take photos of the assaults and circulate them widely through the Internet and at the girls’ schools. Unable to escape the digital trail of their rapes and endless ridicule by their peers, both girls ultimately took their own lives. What added to the sense of hopelessness and shame that eventually became too great for these girls to bear was the lack of attention they received from their schools and the criminal justice system—two systems designed and trusted to protect children.
There was also the young girl in the Steubenville case, whose gang rape was photographed and filmed while her friends and classmates posed with her unconscious body and laughed. Unlike the other two cases, the girl from Steubenville survived, but much like the other two young victims, she was also mercilessly shamed and denigrated for what happened to her by her community, her classmates, and even the media.
What’s devastating is that we know girls are particularly vulnerable to this type of violence, but when it happens, we seek to rationalize and downplay the incident. People are quick to point to underage drinking or argue that “boys will be boys” to dismiss such violence. Other times we look to the victims for ways to shift blame or justify how their behavior may have warranted or contributed to such an attack. We try to minimize the events by likening them to that one story someone told us in college about a girl who slept with a guy and later regretted it, crying rape. This ignores study after study showing that less than half of rapes are reported. For those that are reported, law enforcement may not pursue the matter or deem the case worthy of investigation, often further traumatizing victims. These reactions send the overwhelming message to women and girls that we don’t care what’s happening to them, that we don’t value them or their safety.
No wonder most victims choose not to report their rape or sexual assault. Why would they when recent studies show that among adolescent sexual assault victims who took the steps to bring their assailants to justice—meaning they filed a police report, spoke with investigators, underwent medical forensic exams, and the like—60 percent of cases were never prosecuted. (Among adult victims, some 86 percent of sexual assaults reported to police were never referred to prosecutors.) In other words, a majority of reported sexual assault cases go nowhere, despite evidence and cooperation from the victims.
When schools fail to punish assailants because they are star athletes with bright futures, when law enforcement doesn’t deem a case worthy of their time to investigate, despite ample forensic evidence, and when journalists lament the future of a perpetrator more than the future of a victim, we send the resounding message violence against women and girls is acceptable, that it is inevitable. And the message to rapists is that they can continue to rape with impunity.
Whether we admit it or not, this country has a serious problem with sexual violence, with rates rivaling those of countries we condemn for their dismissive and sexist attitudes toward women and girls’ victimization. But the reality is that no matter who you are or where you are, whether in the United States or India, if you are a woman, you face an increased risk of violence because of your gender alone. And, unfortunately, there’s a really good chance nothing will be done about it.