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Brad Lander

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Violence Against Women: Keeping Up Our Resolve

Posted: 12/19/2011 6:30 pm

Over the last several months, a string of sexual assaults, ranging from groping to rape, shook the Park Slope, Sunset Park, and Windsor Terrace communities.

The response from neighbors has been inspiring. Grassroots organizations emerged -- Safe Slope, Brooklyn Bike Patrol, KWT Canine Watch, and more -- to confront these attacks. The community mobilized to put the right kind of pressure on police and elected officials to respond. The local NYPD precincts responded with an aggressive mix of uniformed and plainclothes officers.

Thankfully, we have not had an attack in several weeks. But this is an important moment to reflect on the plague of violence against women, in Brooklyn and beyond. Because the truth of sexual assault is that it happens every day in our community - in our streets and subways, our workplaces, and our homes -- and we all have a responsibility to stop it.

Every day, people are sexually assaulted: mostly women, though men get attacked too, and LGBTQ individuals are particularly vulnerable. These assaults take an array of forms -- groping, harassment, domestic violence, rape, sex trafficking -- a shameful catalogue of abuse.

Yet too often the accounts of victims are dismissed, downplayed, or not prosecuted. This indifference keeps victims silent, and attackers prey on that silence. We need to hold police, press, politicians, and each other accountable to take sexual assault seriously.

Unlike other crimes, those who accuse others of sexual assault consistently become the targets of scrutiny and character assassination -- questioning what the victim did "to ask for it." It often feels that the accuser is on trial more than the accused. When Sharon Bialek accused Herman Cain of sexually assaulting her when she went to ask him for a job, Cain's campaign responded by implying she was money-grubbing and unstable, and effectively daring any other accusers to step forward and have their character attacked as well. And the media happily reported these baseless accusations.

Unlike other crimes, police often fail to take victims seriously. As the Village Voice reported in 2010, the NYPD has downgraded cases of sexual assault in order to improve crime statistics. Too little public information is provided about crimes targeting women, so I am proud co-sponsor on a bill (proposed by Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley) that would require the NYPD to report such crimes on the web. But at least the NYPD does test all the rape kits it collects -- something that does not happen in many other cities. The FBI still uses an archaic definition of rape that excludes most rapes from being recorded by the agency. With this level of official indifference, many victims are discouraged from even reporting sexual assaults.

Despite decades of education and evidence, rape and assault victims must consistently prove that they did nothing to "deserve" being victimized. That they weren't wearing the wrong thing, that they hadn't been at a party earlier, that they fought back hard enough against their attacker.  

At one point this fall, several women in our community reported that officers were inappropriately commenting on their attire, and conducting outreach that made women feel even less safe. The commanding officer of the 72nd Precinct was great -- he listened to their concerns, adjusted policing strategy, and reinforced appropriate message to his officers. But the pamphlet and training that the NYPD uses to address sexual assault still needs to be updated. It is 20 years old, and can reinforce negative stereotypes.

If we want to end the plague of violence, we all need to start speaking out against the disrespectful culture around sexual assault that allows so many attackers to walk free. We must not simply breathe a sigh of relief (now that the creeps on our neighborhoods' streets seem to have taken a break) and close our eyes and ears to violence that is less public. Instead, let's keep up the neighborhood patrols, interrupt street harassment, support organizations combating domestic violence, and insist on respect for victims.

That would go a long way toward safer streets, subways, parks, workplaces, and homes in Brooklyn -- and far beyond.