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Victoria A. Brownworth Headshot

America Has a Rape Problem

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On June 10, actress and UN Special Envoy to the U.N. Commissioner for Refugees Angelina Jolie opened the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Global Summit. She said, "It is a myth that rape is an inevitable part of conflict. There is nothing inevitable about it. It is a weapon of war aimed at civilians. It has nothing to do with sex, everything to do with power."

The conference is aimed at addressing sexual violence in the 10 wars and 34 armed conflicts currently in progress globally. (The U.N. defines wars as incurring more than 1,000 deaths per year and armed conflicts as incurring less than 1,000 deaths per year but more than 400. Hence Afghanistan and the South Sudanese Civil War are classified as wars, while the Lord's Resistance Army Insurgency and insurgencies in Darfur and Democratic Republic of Congo are considered armed conflicts.)

The number of sexual assaults -- especially gang rapes -- perpetrated in these various wars and conflicts over the length of the conflicts is in the millions. According to a report in May 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health, during the insurgency, four women were raped every five minutes in the DRC. Some of this rape epidemic was related to the conflict in the east and some was intimate partner violence. Knowledge that women are being raped regularly in the insurgency may have, the study suggested, given men not involved in the conflict "permission" to rape.

There are 140 countries represented at the London summit and Jolie summed up the message of the conference with characteristic succinctness: "We must send a message around the world that there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence, that the shame is on the aggressor."

That message needs to be spread beyond discourse on rape in war, however. It needs to reach the military, college campuses, social media and the newsroom of the Washington Post.

While Jolie was opening the Sexual Violence Summit in London, in our nation's capital Washington Post columnist George F. Will, tag-teaming with another of the paper's columnists, Ruth Marcus, was busy doing rape denial under the heading of the perils of progressivism.

There's been a huge outcry over Will's column, which conveys, with his usual sneering condescension, how absurd he thinks even the concept of campus rape is. Will lifts a story about one forced sexual encounter -- a classic date rape scenario -- and uses it as a proof-text to say that all campus rapes are bogus.

Will goes on to conflate sensitivities to language with campus rape and rolls it all up into a ball called "progressivism." Will asserts having been sexually assaulted bestows a "coveted status" on rape survivors.

It's hashtag season on Twitter and Will's words inspired #survivorprivilege, where rape victims -- most of them college-age women -- recounted their experiences and subsequent trauma. Unfortunately that hashtag in turn sparked a men's rights Reddit hashtag #whitepeoplecantberaped to pit white and black women against each other in the name of political correctness, pivoting off Will's original argument that political correctness in the name of progressivism was the real bogey man on college campuses. Not rape.

For her part, Marcus asserted the importance of "real world" advice to college women. That advice was: Don't drink and you won't get raped. Like Will, she uses an extreme example to prove her point: a female Naval Academy midship(wo)man who paid the price for drinking too much (which is, apparently, rape). Marcus recounts the woman drank "seven shots of coconut rum and woke up in an off-campus 'football house' wondering what had happened. (Answer: Sexual encounters with three midshipmen, two of whom are being court-martialed.)"

Marcus asserted she's not blaming the victim; it's even in the title of her column. And yet, it sure sounds like it.

Will is unequivocal; he flat-out disbelieves there's much "real" rape on college campuses and says so, scoffing at both the numbers and the initiatives announced by President Obama at the end of April 2014 in a report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

One of the schools under investigation for college rape is one of the colleges I attended, Temple University. I was raped there while a student when I was going home from class on a dark, cold, late-fall evening by two young men with knives who may or may not have been fellow students. The current student I know who was raped at the same school last year wasn't involved in a case of "buyer's remorse," like Will implies campus rapes are. She was attacked and brutalized. And, as she told me her story, totally dismissed by both campus police and administrators.

So were several other young women I know who were raped on their campuses and who are now involved in the Title IX-End Rape on Campus movement to hold colleges accountable for rape and to rape victims. One of these young women was so badly hurt by the fist of her rapist she couldn't use tampons for a year.

There may be degrees of sexual assault, but there are not degrees of rape.

One of the reasons there's a movement like Title IX at all is because college campuses-which Will forgets are supposed to operate in loco parentis-have behaved much like the Catholic Church has with its pedophile priests. College administrators have routinely tried to "internally investigate" and also silence victims "for the good of the school," leaving victims sitting in classrooms next to the men who raped them. The attitude that "boys will be boys" and rape is a he said/she said event permeates colleges and universities throughout the U.S.

Yet another damning article from the Washington Post proffered the unfortunate headline "One Way to End Violence Against Women? Married Dads." The sub-head? "The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids."

This one spawned the ironic hashtag "WaPo Headlines" to which many contributed, myself included with much-retweeted Victoria Brownworth @VABVOX • Jun 10

The Real Rape Story: What She Wore, Why She Wore It, and Yes, She Drank #WaPoHeadlines

The tone-deafness of the Washington Post reflects the Zeitgeist. The dual conversations about rape being held by women who want something done to stop the crime and defensive men who say not all men rape and that there should be different definitions of rape permeates every aspect of American society, especially social media. Al-Jazeera English columnist Sarah Kendzior became both the subject of a piece in Newsweek about Internet arguments and felt compelled to write her own essay on June 7 titled "On Being a Thing," in which she detailed how an argument with another editor at the leftist publication, Jacobin, spiraled into a series of rape threats and dismissal of those threats.

Kendzior asserted, "For the past few weeks, I have been receiving rape threats and constant harassment from people who describe themselves as leftists or communists, and apparently want to rape their way to revolution."

Kendzior went on to explain how she had felt, receiving those threats, and how as a private person, she felt violated anew by having to even discuss these things publically.

Kendzior concluded her piece, saying, "The left has a rape problem. Someone should write about it. But it's not going to be me. I have had enough threats this year."

It's not just the left. It's the right, the left and the middle. It's every high-profile feminist writer in the U.S. I've received rape threats and written about the problem for SheWired and Curve and other female writers I know have experienced the same thing.

The question is, why is threatening rape the first thing that comes to mind when critiquing a female writer? What ever happened to the simple "I disagree with everything you have to say" style of Letter to the Editor. Surely there's a tweet or Facebook comment that doesn't need to include a rape threat.

The argument used against Kendzior was that she should never have felt threatened by rape threats. Because -- well, that was less clear. But when rape is a threat all women face from birth to death, when infant girls are raped and old women in assisted living facilities are raped, it's not an irrational fear for women. It's a disturbing threat from men. If we think people who use ethnic slurs are racists, is it so surprising that women would think men who would threaten rape might just actually rape? In the majority of rapes, as FBI statistics conclude, the perpetrator is known to the victim. Were my rapists at Temple fellow students in one of my massive classes? Possibly. Had they watched me at the library or in the student union? Maybe.

Calling women irrational for being wary of something they've been told about since childhood is simply counterintuitive. One columnist can't warn women to not drink so they don't get raped while another says it won't really be raped anyway, as he declared consent while drunk works for him.

Rape is epidemic in America and it's not a figment of some collective feminist man-hating agenda. It's just fact.

In December 2011, the New York Times reported "Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Report Sexual Assault." The story opens with this harrowing declaration: "An exhaustive government survey of rape and domestic violence released on Wednesday affirmed that sexual violence against women remains endemic in the United States and in some instances may be far more common than previously thought."

Yet the Washington Post's op-ed editor, Fred Hiatt, in an emailed response to International Business Times regarding the furor over Will's column said to IBT's Christopher Zara that the June 6 column "achieved the goal of a good op-ed by sparking a conversation. I think George's column was well within bounds of legitimate debate on an important topic. I welcomed his perspective and I think the ensuing debate, including responses we will publish, is very healthy and exactly what a good opinion section should be offering its readers."

Except rape isn't a debate topic, like progressivism versus conservatism. Rape is a crime.

We need a summit in the U.S. about rape like the one going on in London right now. Rape is happening everywhere in America just as it is in every war-torn nation. Is there a qualitative difference between being gang raped by soldiers and being gang raped by men in a fraternity house?

In the U.S. it is not the "spoils of war" argument being used to defend the indefensible crime Angelina Jolie describes, but the entitlement of men raised to believe rape really is a matter of opinion, not a criminal act.

We need much more than dueling hashtags and op-ed columnists debating rape on the Internet. We need a serious deconstruction of real numbers in real time. I don't want any other students or women I know saying to me what one victim said to me yesterday about her recovery from rape: "I am as okay as I will ever be. As soon as I stop standing with my back against walls in public places so people can't come up behind me. You know, just another survivor privilege."

Men and women need to understand that rape changes its victims forever. It changed me, it's changing young women on college campuses all over America, it's changing women in the military, it's changing middle-aged women and teenagers. Rape is also changing the way all women view all men. It may not be all men raping, but it is all women fearing all men because no one knows who the rapists are.

That reality of the consequences of a rape epidemic is not a good thing for America. Or anywhere.