Last week, President Obama signed a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act on the same day the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the annual rate of rape and sexual assault perpetrated against women older than 11 declined by nearly 60 percent from 1995 to 2010.
A past study showed that declines in rape and sexual assault are linked to funding provided by the Violence Against Women Act. But despite the reauthorization of the law and clear progress in the fight against sexual violence, we are still a long way from where we need to be.
When people think of sexual assault, they commonly think of a violent stranger coming out of nowhere and dragging a woman to a secluded place. But the bureau's numbers show that only 1 in 5 assaults between 2005 and 2010 involved strangers, and merely 1 in 10 involved a weapon.
The scary reality is that more than three-quarters of sexual assaults were committed by people known to the victims--in many cases, someone the victim should be able to trust. One-third were committed by intimate partners, and nearly 40 percent by well-known or casual acquaintances. Six percent were committed by relatives.
And while rates of sexual assault and rape might be declining, those who are victimized rarely get the help they need.
Just over a third of victims who were injured during the assault received any type of treatment between 2005 and 2010, according to the bureau. Only 23 percent received help or advice from a victim service agency.
These services are imperative for victims. Sexual assault can devastate a victim's mental health, can lead to substance addiction, and can inhibit a victim's ability to function in daily life and form healthy personal relationships.
Making matters worse, victims rarely see the people who hurt them brought to justice. Only one-third of sexual assault victims in 2010 reported it to police, according to the data. In fact, research evidence shows that when women do report sexual assaults to the police, the cases typically go nowhere.
We have to ask ourselves what motivation women have to report their sexual assaults and expose themselves to extreme stress and possible mistreatment during a criminal justice investigation.
When the Violence Against Women Act was first enacted in 1994, it enjoyed broad bipartisan support. It was also popular when it was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. But this time around, Congress did not reauthorize the law until two years after the 2005 version expired, and it took some savvy political maneuvering to get it done.
The political wrangling aside, the latest version of the law takes some positive steps. It puts greater emphasis on prosecuting and convicting sexual assault offenders. It also increases protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and Native American victims.
However, the new version also reduces funding that's crucial for fighting sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking by 17 percent.
Looking at the big picture, when only 1 in 3 victims of rape and sexual assault report their assault to law enforcement, we have a long way to go. And when less than 1 in 4 victims get the help, advocacy, and services they need and deserve to restore wholeness in their lives, there's more work to be done.
If we really want to create a society that truly protects women from sexual crimes, all our policymakers need to be pulling in the same direction.