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April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Far more than a mere chance to don a teal ribbon and say you support survivors, the month is a critical time for raising awareness about rape and sexual assault. On March 31, 2016, President Obama issued a statement acknowledging the continued importance of the month and highlighting some of his administration’s initiatives. As a long-time advocate and activist on this issue, I applaud President Obama’s leadership and am hopeful that the next president will expand them. Unfortunately, should some of these candidates be elected, I fear that sexual assault will receive minimal attention. That would be a tragedy with devastating consequences.
In his statement, President Obama noted that too many women and men are victims of sexual assault and that in far too many cases, they receive little support. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. Only 68 percent of those sexual assaults are reported to authorities, in large part due to the victims’ fear that he or she will not be taken seriously and will even be judged or blamed for the incident. Repeated studies have shown that the risk is even more acute for college students. Yet many campuses are failing to both adequately respond to sexual assaults and to engage in effective prevention programs, as evidenced by the 197 investigations at 161 institutions as of January 19, 2016.
President Obama’s statement also noted that sexual assault is a significant problem in the military, and he pledged to continue prioritizing this issue. Indeed, one study found that nearly five percent of active-duty women and one percent of active-duty men had experienced unwanted sexual contact. Nearly half of the incidents reported by female victims involved penetration. These are surely underestimates. A 2014 survey found that 62 percent of respondents suffered from some form of social or professional retaliation when they reported a sexual assault. In 2015, the UN’s Universal Periodic Review Panel denounced the U.S for failing to curtail sexual violence in the military.
Further, Obama noted initiatives he began to help end the backlog on analyzing rape kits and discussed the creation of training and resources for law enforcement that will increase their sensitivity to victims of all genders and cultural backgrounds. It is estimated that more than 400,000 rape kits remain untested around the country, resulting in delayed accountability for offenders and prolonged trauma for victims. Survivors often tell about police officers asking inappropriate questions that clearly imply they are to blame for their own assault. For victims who are transgender, the situation is even worse, as has been documented by human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
What about Obama’s successor, then? Bernie Sanders has been on the record stating that his support for affirmative consent and bystander programs, both of which are best practices according to advocacy groups like Faculty Against Rape. Sanders and rival Hillary Clinton have both called for serious national conversations about sexual assault on campuses, and Clinton has long spoken out about women’s rights as human rights. While neither has made sexual assault a primary campaign issue, both do seem poised to continue President Obama’s initiatives and to take sexual assault seriously.
For the Republicans, Ted Cruz has said little about the subject, but he voted against the amendments to the Violence Against Women Act passed in 2013 with the weasel-like dodge that these should be issues handled by the states. Donald Trump has a terrible track record on pretty much anything related to gender, so it is difficult to imagine his support for survivors or for sexual assault prevention. For instance, Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists, lobbied for zero prison time for his chum Mike Tyson, who was convicted of rape, and his ex-wife Ivana claims he made her feel “violated” during sexual interactions. His special counsel, Michael Cohen, defended Trump and inaccurately maintained that you cannot rape your spouse. In May 2013, Trump tweeted about the scope of sexual violence in the military “What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?” implying that rape is inevitable among a mixed-gender crowd.
There is still time to press these candidates on their positions relative to sexual assault response and prevention. Given the scope of the problem and its long-term traumatic effects, we must all push our politicians to explain how they can carry on and even expand President Obama’s initiatives.