The continuing revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses of women comes after numerous disclosures of reported abuses by other male “celebrities.” Among these notables are Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby as well as Amazon’s Roy Price and Fox News’ hall-of-shame all-stars, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Charles Payne and Eric Bolling. Over the years, dozens of other celebrities have been accused and/or convicted of sexual abuse. And then there is Donald Trump, the nation’s commander-and-abuser.
By the time of Trump’s election, the New Yorker identified 24 women, including his former wife, Ivana Trump, claiming to be victims of his aggressive – and non-consensual – sexual advances. His reported incidents of misogyny and sexual aggression took many forms, from verbal put-downs and insults, to groping and fondling, to outright rape. It remains a secret as to how many women he might have paid for sexual services and what fantasies – and abuses — he played out.
Sexual abuse is a form of sexual terror, an all-American male sport. Women who experienced sexual abuse from Weinstein, Trump and others report being shamed, harassed, assaulted, professionally threatened and even suffering from PTSD – all forms of terror. Hopefully, the growing number of exposés of male abuse of women by male celebrities, politicians and athletes will foster a deeper social debate, one shifting from the elite to everyday workplaces, classrooms and domestic experiences.
Sexual abuse and violence in the U.S. is as old as the country. America’s patriarchal culture long legitimized sexual abuse and violence toward women — and children — whether conducted at the workplace, at home, a nightclub or on a deserted street. During the nation’s earliest days, the custom of sexual abuse and violence was legitimized through the notion of “chastisement.” This was a feature of Anglo-American common law that recognized the husband as master of “his” household and, thus, permitted him to subject “his” wife to corporal punishment, including rape, so long as he did not inflict permanent injury upon her. Sexual abuse was institutionalized in the rape of African and later African-American female slaves. As the legal scholar Adrienne Davis notes, “U.S. slavery compelled enslaved black women to labor in three markets – productive, reproductive, and slavery – crucial to the political economy.”
Slavery was formally ended with the Civil War, but Jim Crow segregation persisted into the 20th century. Chastisement was not overturned until 1871 in the case of Fulgham vs. the State of Alabama. George Fulgham, an emancipated slave, was charged with whipping his children and wife, also an emancipated slave. The wife brought suit against her husband, challenging a husband’s ability to physically discipline his wife and family as well as his ownership of her person, the value of both her paid and unpaid labor, and any property that accompanied their marriage. The court ruled, “The privilege, ancient though it may be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor or to inflict upon her other like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law.”
Social change involving interpersonal relations never follows a straight line. Following the Alabama decision, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina and Georgia followed suit. In the late-1890s, a husband’s rape of a wife was recognized as a crime in Louisiana, Texas and other states.
However, in 1910, the Supreme Court ruled in Thompson v. Thompson that a husband and wife were regarded as one, thus refusing to allow a wife to sue her husband over an assault-and-battery charge. Changing this precedent, the Court ruled, “would open the doors of the courts to accusations of all sorts of one spouse against the other and bring into public notice complaints for assault, slander and libel.” Nevertheless, during this period numerous husbands were arrested and charged with “wife beating,” their names, addresses and occupations printed in local newspapers. Their punishment often included jail terms, hefty fines and even whipping or flogging.
More recently, sexual abuse and violence has been classified as intimate partner violence (IPV) and includes rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend as well as being made to penetrate or engage in sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences like stalking.
From 1994 to 2011, according to federal data, the rate of “serious” IPV declined 72 percent for females and 64 percent for males. Between 2002-2011, more than a third of IPV incidents consisted of “nonfatal serious violence,” but about 4 percent of females and 8 percent of males who were IPV victims were shot at, stabbed or hit with a weapon.
Sadly, nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. More than half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and two-fifths (40.8%) by an acquaintance; for male victims, more than half (52.4%) reported being raped by an acquaintance and one in six (15.1%) by a stranger. In 2005, local police departments reported that two-fifths (40%) of female homicide victims ages 15–50 were killed by either a current or former intimate partner and that among male victims 15–50 years of age, only 2 percent were killed by either a current or former partner.
Compounding this traditional notion of sexual violence is the increased reporting of sexual violence committed against males. In 2014, the UCLA’s Williams Institute released a provocative study, “The Sexual Victimization of Men in America,” by Ilan Meyer and Lara Stemple, that reframes the notion of interpersonal violence. The study asserts, “The CDC data reveal that both women and men experienced nonconsensual sex in alarming numbers.” Most surprising, it found that both women and men experienced 1.3 million incidents of nonconsensual sex within the 12 months preceding the study, but underwent their sexual victimization very differently. As the researchers note, “the study also included the 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey, which found that 38% of all rape and sexual assault incidents were committed against males, an increase over past years that challenges the common belief that males are rarely victims of this crime.”
A 2010 Justice Department report, “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey,” found that “bisexual women experienced significantly higher lifetime prevalence of rape and other sexual violence by an intimate partner when compared to heterosexual women” and “significantly higher lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner when compared to lesbian and heterosexual women.” It also reports that between 20 and 35 percent of LGBTQ couples experience domestic violence; 50 percent of transgender people surveyed had been hit by a primary partner after coming out as transgender; and LGBTQ youth report a 30 percent incidence of dating violence, compared to 9 percent for heterosexual students.
Deeply troubling, sexual violence is widely perpetrated on young people. The CDC finds that among female victims of completed rape, nearly 4 out of 5 (78.7%) were first raped before age 25 years and two-fifths (40.4%) before age 18 years; among male victims who were made to penetrate a perpetrator, more than two-thirds (71%) were victimized before age 25 years and one-fifth (21.3%) before age 18 years). A similar pattern was found for victims of stalking with both half of females (53.8%) and males (47.7%) were first stalked before age 25 years and nearly one-fifth (16.3% of females and 20.5% of male victims) before age 18 years.
Sexual abuse and violence also involves transgender youths. The 2011 report, “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” found that 12 percent of transgender youth report being sexually assaulted in K–12 settings by peers or educational staff; 13 percent of African-American transgender people surveyed were sexually assaulted in the workplace; and 22 percent of homeless transgender individuals were assaulted while staying in shelters.
A July 2017 report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Homicides of Adult Women and the Role of Intimate Partner Violence, 2003–2014,” is shocking. It finds that more than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to an IPV incident. Black women are killed at a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people, indigenous women at a rate of 4.3 per 100,000 and every other race has a homicide rate of between 1 and 2 per 100,000.
Most distressing, to date in 2017, 23 transgender people were reported murdered, the same as in 2016; this is up from the 21 killings in 2015. Almost all of the victims were people of color and, as the Human Rights Campaign notes, all “victims were killed by acquaintances, partners and strangers.”
Sexual abuse is a form of social terror, often inflicted by men against women (and children). It can be perpetrated against a vulnerable person, whether a fledgling movie-star or corporate subordinate; against an intimate partner or a prison inmate; and it can be perpetrated by a male or a female against a male or female, an adult or a child, be s/he gay, straight or trans. Based on CDC estimates, more than 2.5 million people are victims of some form of sexual terror annually. Efforts to combat it, whether in prisons, college campuses or in ordinary households, will only help make the U.S. a more humane country.
During the tumultuous 1960s, H. Rap Brown prophetically observed, “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie.” While considering the need for African-American self-defense, Brown’s words were part of a broader statement, “I say violence is necessary. … We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary. We will be free, by any means necessary.”
Looking at the issue of sexual abuse and violence inflicted (mostly) by men on women, one can sadly say it is as American as cherry pie. One can only wonder when a female activist will embrace Rap Brown’s call for all-American violence, for women to take up arms to combat patriarchy. This recalls the 1991 indie film classic, Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott, written by Callie Khouriand starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, that championed an ethos of by any means necessary. Harvey Weinstein was not involved.