Sexual Violence in America

Many sex-related stories captured popular attention in 2011.  Most upsetting, many of the incidents involved sexual violence.  Taken together, they indicate something bigger, deeper, taking place in America, a social crisis.  It’s as if the body politic is moaning, declaring that sexual intimacy, too, is a terrain of the mounting social crisis.

A number of nonviolent incidents are illustrative.  Most pathetic, the outing of Herman Cain for an increasing number of disturbing actions involving women (e.g., pay-offs related to sexual harassment suits and an extramarital “friendship” with a woman his wife didn’t know about) forced him out of the Republican presidential race.  The Cain incident followed the outings of Congressmen Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Chris Lee (R-NY) and Mark Souder (R-IN) for inappropriate sex-related conduct, conduct that led to their resignations.

Sexual politics also drew national attention.  The Republican Congress and many Republican-controlled state legislatures continued their culture-wars campaign to end Roe, to restrict sex education and to cut funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.  The U.S. military ended Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, enabling “out” gay people to serve their country.  This sets the stage for a push to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), something that might happend if Obama and the Congressional Democrats win in 2012.  Tilting to the right in anticipation of the 2012 campaign, President Obama backed HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to require girls under 17 years to get a doctor’s prescription for Plan B, the morning-after contraceptive pill.

However, the killing of ten female prostitutes on eastern Long Island remains an unsolved crime, raising questions about law enforcement’s ability to solve horrendous sex crimes.  The “justice” system is either clueless (like the “Intelligence” establishment per 9/11) or complicit (like so many police and prosecutor per DNA exonerations).  And then there are the revelations about alleged sexual crimes committed by athletic coaches toward young boys and underage youths and the institutional cover-ups that kept them quiet for years.

More troubling are the findings of a recently released report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documenting the alarmingly high level of sexual violence among intimate partners, violence most often perpetrated by men against women.  According to Linda Degutis, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the study found that “almost one in five women have been raped in their lifetime ….”  She added, this “is very striking and, I think, will be surprising to a lot of people.”

This is an invaluable study that confirms what many knew for years: American is a terrain of widespread sexual conflict.  However, as a government document, it reflects a disturbing lack of intellectual boldness.  Its proposals (like the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign) are well meaning, but neither really address the problem nor are likely to accomplish much.  As it insists, “Collective action is needed to implement prevention approaches, ensure appropriate responses, and support these efforts based on strong data and research.”

Worse still but expected, it doesn’t link reported incidents of sexual violence to the nation’s social context, particularly the mounting crisis of the Great Recession. It doesn’t ask respondents if violence has increased over the last 4 to 5 years, due to financial hardship.  Nevertheless, reading between the lines, the study is a testament to one of the hidden costs associated with the mounting economic, social and political crisis.

* * *

The CDC’s report on intimate sexual violence is one scary document.  It is formally titled, “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS).”  It is an empirical survey based on some 16,000 24-minute telephone interviews conducted in English and Spanish.  It reports that, on average, 24 people per minute in the U.S. are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.

Each year, more than 12 million American women and men face some form of sexual violence, be it rape, physical assault (i.e., “intimate partner violence”) or stalking.   Most shocking, an estimated 1.3 million women are raped each year!  Given the shame that still envelops sex in the country, one can expected many survey respondents to have not told the whole truth.

Nevertheless, the study’s findings are disturbing:

*     More than 1 in 3 women (35.6% or approximately 42.4 million) have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime

*    Nearly 1 in 5 women has been raped during their lifetime.  Approximately four-fifths (80%) of female victims of rape were first raped before age 25.

*  About 1 in 4 women has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime.  Nearly 3-out-of-4 (70%) of female victims experienced were victims before the age of 25.

*  About 1 in 6 women has been a victim of stalking during her lifetime.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding was that the vast majority of victims of sexual violence knew their perpetrator.  The perpetrator was most often an intimate partner or acquaintance, seldom a stranger.  This characteristic is common to the pedophile.

Reflecting a new sexual consciousness, the study found that a man could also be the victim of sexual violence.  The CDC study found:

*  More than one-quarter of male rape victims were first raped when they were 10 years old or younger.

* About 1 in 7 men has experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.

* More then half (53%) of male victims experienced some form of intimate partner violence for the first time before age of 25.  More than a quarter (28%) of male victims of rape reported that they were first assaulted when they were no older than 10.

For women and men, violence is an intimate feature of American sexual culture.

One of the study’s troubling findings concerns the relationship of ethnicity and sexual violence; the study does not analyze its findings in terms of family income.  Intimate partner violence is widespread among minority communities: approximately 4 out of every 10 non-Hispanic Black women, 4 out of every 10 American Indian or Alaska Native women (43.7% and 46.0%, respectively), and 1 in 2 multiracial non-Hispanic women (53.8%) have been the victim intimate partner violence in their lifetime.  Among the other racial/ethnic groups of women, about one-third of White non-Hispanic women (34.6%), more than one-third of Hispanic women (37.1%), and about one-fifth of Asian or Pacific Islander non-Hispanic women (19.6%).

* * *

The CDC study defines rape as completed forced penetration, forced-penetration facilitated by drugs or alcohol, or attempted forced penetration.  It found that 1 percent of women surveyed reported being raped in the previous year; in the U.S., an estimated 1.3 million women are raped annually.

The CDC findings are significantly higher than previous federal estimates of violent sex crimes.  The most widely cited estimates of sexual violence in America are from the Department of Justice.  It estimates that, in 2010 188,000 Americans were victims of sexual violence.  Of these, the Federal Bureau of Investigation specified 85,000 as forcible rapes.  No federal agency seems to have attempted to reconcile the differences between these conflicting estimates.

The significant difference between the CDC estimates and the FBI reports of forced rape — 1.3 million vs. 85,000 — suggests the vast divide between the informal, popular experience (what really happens) and the formal, official report (the social fiction).  The ideological orientation of most government agencies, whether at the local, state or federal level, is to minimize troubling information and to maximize glowing fictions.  Occasionally, the truth sneaks out.  This CDC report is such a disclosure, a scary reminder of just how primitive, patriarchal America remains.

The CDC report does not link its findings to the decline in the divorce rate.  The U.S. divorce rate peaked in 1981 at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 marriages; in 2010, it was at 3.6 divorces per 1,000.

A number of factors have contributed to this decline.  One is life-style changes.  Since 1970, the number of unmarried couples who are living together has increased tenfold.  Another is a campaign by the Christian, Republican right at the state level to make it harder to get a divorce.  In state legislatures across the country, they have pushed to extend the divorce waiting-period, propose “covenant” marriages or require pre-marital and divorce education classes.

Another factor is the recession.  For many couples, the crisis has made things more difficult, financially and emotionally, thus making it harder separate.  There has been a recent spike in the divorce rate, but many couples are forced to persist in bad relations and one can only image this fueling intimate violence, likely making things worse.

How this all holds together, how Herman Cain’s sexual harassment suits fit with intimate sexual violence among, for example, white, non-Hispanic women, is yet to be determined.  What is clear is that sex matters, that intimacy too-often involves violence and the deepening economic crisis seems to only make matters worse.  Sexual violence is the shame of the nation.

David Rosen is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.


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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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