Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Rape. Then and Now
Twenty-five years ago, survivors of rape and domestic violence in the United States started telling their stories to Congress. For four years, their stories joined the testimony of physicians, law professors, representatives of state law enforcement and private business in the eight separate Reports issued by Congress and its committees that led to the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. On rape, Congress found:
“Three-quarters of women never go to the movies alone after dark because of the fear of rape and nearly 50 percent do not use public transit alone after dark for the same reason.”
“According to one study, close to half a million girls now in high school will be raped before they graduate.”
“[One hundred twenty-five thousand] college women can expect to be raped during this -- or any -- year.”
“[Forty-one] percent of judges surveyed believed that juries give sexual assault victims less credibility than other crime victims.”
“An individual who commits rape has only about 4 chances in 100 of being arrested, prosecuted, and found guilty of any offense.”
In September 1994, the VAWA was enacted, declaring for the first time: “All persons within the United States shall have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender.” Violence against women became more than a crime or personal injury. Such violence was now, in national law, sex discrimination, a violation of civil rights. Victims were given the same civil rights remedy as victims of crimes motivated by race or religion: a federal civil action for damages against perpetrators.
That September, Christy Brzonkala was an 18 year-old freshman at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In her dorm, minutes after she met two varsity football players, one of them asked her to have sex with him. She told him “no,” twice. When she went to leave, she says they raped her – first one, then the other, and then the first again. As he left, the first warned her, “You better not have any fucking diseases.” He later announced publicly, he “liked to get girls drunk and fuck the shit out of them.”
After Christy Brzonkala complained to the school, two rounds of disciplinary hearings were held. One football player was acquitted and the other was found guilty of sexual assault and suspended for two semesters. His suspension was quickly voided. He was then found guilty of “using abusive language.” The University Provost personally intervened and overturned his second suspension. He returned the next fall, on a full athletic scholarship.
Christy Brzonkala sued under the civil remedy provision of the VAWA. As her case made its way to the Supreme Court as United States v. Morrison, the only question had been framed early on by the trial court. It was not the question whether her civil rights had been violated, but a question of federalism. The Supreme Court answered: Congress had no power to place law in the hands of women victims. In the entire record of her case, Christy Brzonkala has only one word, “no.”
It is fifteen years since the Court’s decision in Morrison. The story of rape on American campuses has been building - on new social media, like the websites of survivors like Know Your IX and student organizations, SAFER, and blogs like Feministing and in the unprecedented political and legal responses of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights' disclosures of Title IX investigations and The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
This past year, survivor stories became newly visible in documentary film. In Cecilia Peck's BRAVE MISS WORLD, rape survivor and activist Miss Israel and Miss World Linor Abargil encourages victims of campus rape in America to speak out, and they do. The director of the award-winning THE GREATEST SILENCE: RAPE IN THE CONGO, Lisa Jackson follows five survivors as they fight for accountability on campus and in federal court in her newly released film, IT HAPPENED HERE.
Just days ago, Kirby Dick's film about campus rape, THE HUNTING GROUND, premiered at Sundance. Dick is known for telling human stories of inequalities and power, violence and impunity. The Invisible War, his 2012 film on rape in the US military, pressed for accountability in how the military handles rape. In March 2014, a bill to take military sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of commanders fell only five votes short of beating a Senate filibuster.
I have not seen THE HUNTING GROUND, described by the Sundance Film Festival as a “piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses.” While it may be too early to know the specifics of the film’s policy agenda, US Senators Barbara Boxer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand were at Sundance speaking on a related panel. Both are backing legislation requiring schools to disclose publicly the result of anonymous surveys concerning assaults.
I hope colleges and universities will use these films to teach the vulnerability and violence of rape, its entrenched inequalities and shocking failures of accountability. To teach what the law says, what law does, what law has the power to change – in rape at home, at school, and on the streets, rape as pornography, rape for profit, rape as spectacle, rape in the military, rape as genocide, rape as war too extraordinary to be believed, rape in peace too commonplace to be visible.
To those in colleges and universities who try to silence survivors or erase the small details and remembered events of their stories, then and now, young women are saying, “no.”