How effective is The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 is the question of 2014? As the layers of sexism become exposed, there are valid questions and more exposure to the fact that the 1994 law was only the beginning of a shift in how women are perceived in sexual assault and what that means. Statistics show that there has been a decrease is sexual abuse since the law was instated. But it seems than likely as in the sports world, in the military and in the university reports of assault and rape become known, that it is the reports of sexual assault that have decreased relative to their incidence, and not the number of incidences of assault.
The cost of a woman confronting the incidence of her assault is costly, personal and denigrating in many cases if they are even given credence at all once reported. In the NY magazine Winter 2014, there is a story on student who carries her mattress around campus because her report of being assaulted on campus by a student did not result even in his being expelled from the University. Only if there are headlines and large figures in the world of professional athletes, the best universities, or the top brass of the military do we find the public awareness pressing in on what might be the current evidence that violence against women has not been fully addressed even with the 1994 law.
In recent months NFL football players Ray Rice of Baltimore and Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers assaulted their mates within weeks of each other, and now the world is watching. There is a demand to change the policies within the sports world to condemn the behavior of these sports athletes, and any others that might follow. There is talk of dire consequences and dismissal from their multi million dollar careers should these athletes fail to meet those standards of not hitting women. Trained most of the time since high school, these athletes of age early twenties to late twenties are trained to hurl their bodies without mercy onto the fields and the players with different jerseys. Brutality is an asset; quick moves automatic without consideration for bodily harm-theirs or the player across from them is the game. A football is the focus, reaching and grasping stretching and extending the body and mind to whatever it takes to get to cross the line to the goal. Like the ancient gladiators, their spent bodies are of no concern to the sports fans, the producers of the league or the team owners. Head trauma, broken knees, arms, hips and pelvises that result for these young bodies and minds are being given some attention these days. Concussions are now being recognized not only for the immediate destructive consequence, but the long range potential consequences of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s as well as the documented link to the conditions of alcohol and prescription drug abuse. There is the dawning recognition of the cost to young athletes who pay for a lifetime of injury to their physical and psychological damages for the violent use of their bodies in football, and other sports.
For the young athletes who suddenly have huge sums of money offered to them, and fame-they are the winners in the lottery of life. They have little training in how to manage their extraordinary lives. They are perceived as heroes, and are paid extremely well once professional football players or baseball or basketball.
For the general public the headlines report their car accidents, their fights with other players and their mates, just like other celebrities in the entertainment business. Just like other celebrities they are public property from which the excitement about them, their lifestyles and their traumatic losses sell newspapers, keep the sports radio shows going, and add to the drama and ticket sales on the football field or sports arena. For those on the sideline, the justification of the use and exploitation of these young men is that they are paid six figure salaries or more, they drive great cars, and the plays they make on the field are the thrill of their performances.
And it is the video of Ray Rice that even brings the conversation to the level of public awareness, and uproar. Men hitting women and the demand for a consequence began with the suffragettes who closed the bars because of wife beating in what they called “bloody Saturday nights.” In the 1920’s, men lost a good part of their paychecks and then many came home and beat their wives. The response by the Temperance Union to close the bars was motivated by the safety of women from the drunken assaults. (Suffragettes History)
Since the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, there is the report of a 64% reduction in violence against women. However, that reduction cannot include what wasn’t reported; women getting hit and not reporting it. Nor does it include the casual and frequent response of police when called with their position of blaming both parties in an assault by a man situation. The woman’s state of being, sober or having ingested alcohol, what she was wearing, her history are all weighed, and she is often considered to have conspired with the outcome of assault or even the cause. That was what happened with the police in the case of Ray Rice and his wife. This video stirred up the recognition that more needs to be done to train those in power to respond with absolute unequivocal effective action. For the coaches, for the police, for the public the no tolerance for assault to a woman is being called for. In the realm of testosterone laden football athletes, the demand for managing themselves is being revealed as not an option but a demand that needs to be met by the players, by the coaches and by the commissioners and their responses to assaults by players. In the heat of the video and the embarrassment of Commissioner Roger Goodell, there was that talk. There was also talk of starting to train young men about themselves and their aggression on and off the field in high school – which made the most sense of everything discussed. Will the attention and intention to encourage the punishment of sexual assault be the answer?
President Obama asked Kamala Harris, Attorney General in California to present to congress that 1 in 5 undergraduates are sexually assaulted, and women who do not attend college have even a higher rate of assault in the age group of 18-24. Sexual assault she mentions is an emotional trauma that maybe a lifelong difficulty and men as well as women are sexually assaulted. To address the underreporting by assault victims, Harris identifies that even with the glare of public light brought on by the Ray Rice Case, in the Universities and military, there are the limiting conditions that reside in the issue of sexual assault. (SF Chronicle 1/26/14) Of concern to Harris are the myths that continue to serve as limitations to women coming forward when sexually assaulted.
“It should go without saying that victims are not, and should not be, on trial, that they bear no burden to prove their own innocence and that our criminal justice system was not created only to serve and protect the metaphorical Snow White.” Women on trial for their sexuality shows up in many forms, and Kamala Harris is directly addressing the residual sexism in qualifying the victim’s complaint of sexual assault by addressing her personal history, her use of alcohol, and burden to prove her innocence. “There does not have to be a perfect victim for a crime to have been committed,” Attorney General Harris commented. The pervasive attitudes of women being sexual beings and attacks on their sexuality persist in the form of questioning her virtue and history. Harris comments on the fact that trauma has the effect of having memory distortions, but women are considered unreliable witnesses often to their own assault because of inconsistencies that are a part of the impact of trauma.
The business of professional sports, the halls of great Universities like Berkeley, the top brass in the military have all been headlined as wanting in terms of addressing the claims of assault with the appropriate gravity that it is due in reference to sexual violence. Women, and men coming forward and reporting sexual violence as the crime that it is will more likely report if they are not attacked, and become the victim of sexual bias.
“We must do better” Kamala Harris states, and yes we must. It is decades past women being the choosers in their sexual activity with the ability to assume responsibility for their sexuality. Aggressive campus sexual assault laws are a good start as Attorney General Harris states, but we have a distance to go in making it safe enough for women and men to expose themselves knowing they will be heard and not attacked, second guessed or have their attack minimalized in this, “the most underreported crime of all.”