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Sexual Assault in the West: The Next 'Not In My Backyard' Problem

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A white man with black sunglasses and a plastic bag in his left hand slowly walked up to me and said hello. I acknowledged his passing with a firm nod, cars racing by Memorial Drive on a sunny day in Cambridge two weeks ago. He dropped the bag and frantically reached down to unzip his pants. I started running as fast as I could, heart racing, and didn't stop until I reached home.

Passersby had shrugged their shoulders and looked away. My sense of powerlessness and humiliation could not be shrugged off that easily, however. As I sat down behind my desk, determined to voice my disgust, I did what others have done before me.

"I, too, was sexually assaulted," scores of women confessed in response to Liz Gorman's brave blog post last month. It recounted her experience of a man pulling up behind her on his bicycle in a D.C. street in broad daylight, reaching up her skirt, and sticking his fingers into her vagina through her underwear.

A wave of indignation rippled through cyberspace, urging the capital's traditional media outlets to report on the incident and bring it to the attention of national policymakers. Something had to be done. Columnist Petula Dvorak called on women to systematically report cases of sexual assault and awaken the world to the pervasiveness of gender-based violence. Her suggestion made a lot of sense, not least in the face of new Gallup research showing that women feel less safe than men in many developed countries.

Perhaps most of all, then, the incident should compel us to look inward.

Amid outbursts of indignation over cases of sexual assault of women in Egypt, Afghanistan, and India, the cries of their western counterparts are often ignored. The devastating accounts of rape on Tahrir Square, the public execution of an alleged adulteress near Kabul, and molestation of a teenage girl outside a bar in Assam should not serve as excuses to close our eyes to our own unresolved problems. A sobering dose of humility should help us to equally expose cultures of male patriarchy condoning criminal behavior in the West.

The data show that women are less likely to benefit from societal development than men. "The implication is that as countries develop socially and economically, expectations of physical security become the norm for all citizens -- but in many cases women are less likely than men to feel those expectations are being met," the report states. Developed countries such as Italy and France don't seem to do any better than Yemen, where only 56 percent of women claim to feel safe walking alone at night.

Multiple reasons could account for this result. Standards of personal security may be much lower in developing countries, personal safety comes at the expense of other freedoms in autocratic regimes, perceptions of safety are inherently subjective, and statistical models are not perfect. But a glaring disregard for one of the biggest taboos of our times -- gender-based violence -- regardless of culture cannot be discounted. Countries where women feel more secure walking alone at night have made women's rights a social priority; others have not.

Belgium is a case in point. In terms of sense of security, it dangles at the bottom of the list of rich European countries, only 52 percent of women claiming to feel safe when walking alone at night. In Brussels, the capital of Europe, the issue appears particularly worrisome.

When Sofie Peeters, a student at Flemish film academy RITS, had had enough of the derogatory behavior of male passersby -- "Whore!" and "Bitch!" are just a few of the daily insults she has had to endure after moving to Brussels two years ago -- she decided to make a documentary about her experiences. Femme de la rue, casts a gripping image of women's ordeals and ways of coping with sexual intimidation in one of the city's multicultural neighborhoods. "I hate to say it," Ms. Peeters said in an interview on national television, "but in nine out of 10 cases foreigners [from Maghreb descent] are involved."

Her brave work launched the country into a difficult and long overdue debate last week on the alleged correlation between poor socioeconomic support or culture and disrespectful behavior toward women. A sense of entitlement but few opportunities would drive men to work out their sexual frustration on the streets, experts say, others blame Islam.

Mourade, a young man of foreign descent interviewed by Peeters, had his own cultural critique to offer in return. "Women aren't as emancipated as they think. Sure, there is emancipation and freedom in Europe, in the West. But women still remain, I feel, a lust object for men," referring to overt nudity in society and ad campaigns on billboards for products as diverse as shampoo, toothpaste, and cars.

Perhaps this imagery inspired members of the French parliament to wolf-whistle and catcall at housing minister Cécile Duflot, while wearing a flowery dress during her speech at the National Assembly two weeks ago.

Documentaries such as the one of Peeters call for the systematic reporting of cases of sexual assault, place the issue on the agenda of western policymakers, facilitate debate, and help politicians understand the strong relationship that exists between women's safety and a country's prosperity.

Women may not be able to "have it all," but feeling safe walking alone at night doesn't seem like too much to ask.