Bringing women’s issues from the shadows

It is crucial that students band together this month to increase awareness of sexual abuse.

Abby Bar-Lev

Sexual assault is more prevalent in the United States – and especially among students – than many would like to believe. Unfortunately sexual assault does not get nearly enough attention in Congress or the public, but at least there is April. The month of April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and serves as a time to reflect and examine issues of sexual assault, as well as inspire students to work together to end violence against women.

The University defines sexual assault as an “actual, attempted or threatened sexual contact with another person without that person’s consent.” Sexual assault is also often a “criminal act that can be prosecuted under Minnesota state law, as well as under the Student Conduct Code and employee discipline procedures.”

The statistics on violence against women are devastating. According to the Commonwealth Fund, “nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives.” It is particularly frightening to think that that number would increase if every abused woman actually were to report it. As it is, according to a 2002 Minnesota Crime Survey displayed on the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women Web site, “Over 80 percent of victims of domestic violence in Minnesota did not report the incidents to law enforcement.”

Beyond that, young women are especially vulnerable to sexual assault. In fact, “between one in four and one in five college women” are estimated by the National College Women Sexual Victimization study to “experience completed or attempted rape during their college years.” Tragically, too many women do not get the opportunity to report abuse before it is too late. Not only are 32 percent of battered women abused again following six months of an episode of domestic violence, but on average in the United States, “more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends” every day. In Minnesota alone in 2004, “13 women and nine children” were murdered “as a result of domestic violence.”

Although the victims of sexual abuse are disproportionately women (but not solely women; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 33 men in the United States have been rape or attempted rape victims in their lifetime), it is imperative to acknowledge that reducing sexual assault only will come with the efforts of men and women. To begin with, at 6:30 p.m. April 27 Minnesota Public Interest Research Group is hosting Take Back the Night, which will be “a march and rally to protest the fear and violence that women encounter in their daily lives.” Take Back the Night is meant to raise the awareness of sexual assault and also unite communities to help one another heal, offer support and create safer neighborhoods.

Take Back the Night follows a month of opportunities to get involved and raise awareness about sexual assault. The documentary “Searching for Angela Shelton” plays April 11 and 14. The filmmaker travels across the country to meet other women named Angela Shelton and finds that more than half of those 40 women have suffered some form of sexual abuse. There is also the presentation “Men Ending Rape” in Anderson Hall on April 19 featuring a presentation “encouraging men to play a significant role in ending the perpetuation of a campus rape culture.”

Sexual assault awareness should not be limited to one month, and should not be limited to sexual assault. It should include raising awareness of a variety of issues neglected by Congress and public discourse. Or we could work to make every month an opportunity to increase awareness. Taking a month to concentrate solely on one issue or set of issues could be an effective tool for framing, reshaping and redefining the debates and goals of society. If April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, why should May not be Child Abuse and Neglect Month? Why should June not be dedicated to the urgent need for reform in the juvenile justice system? And why should July not be Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Month? Why should August not address poverty and welfare issues? Why should September not be Sex Trafficking Awareness Month?

Why not demand that Congress legislate on those issues each month? We could prioritize these matters that have strayed for too long in the shadows and that have left too many faceless numbers at the caprice of politics and disinterested lawmakers.

Yet, exactly because lawmakers are unlikely to act unless there is substantial pressure from communities, it is crucial that the University students band together this month – at least this month – to bring the subject of sexual assault and abuse onto the front pages, into our conversations and out of obscurity.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected]

The Aurora Center:

Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women:’s Fact on Violence:

University of Minnesota Sexual Assault/Relationship Violence Policy

Federal News Dispatch: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Documents and Publications, 4/7/2006