Every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. This simply staggering number makes an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) each year in the United States. In an effort to combat sexual assault, every April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. But a single month of awareness is just not enough when you consider the state of sexual assault in our country.
When people think of pro-choice, often it’s in the context of abortion or contraception. However, being pro-choice is more than a single stance on those two issues. Being pro-choice is about holding a fundamental belief that every individual has a right to make decisions about their own body free from someone else’s or the government’s control.
Sexual assault inherently goes against a pro-choice mentality. Sexual assault is when someone violently takes control of your body away from you, takes your choice away from you. And sexual assault is an issue that needs more attention in our society, including from “pro-choice” organizations. It’s also an issue that can unite pro-choice organizations and organizations that have historically been more conservative on social issues. While abortion and contraception are still controversial topics, most organizations are willing to take a stand against sexual assault when an individualis so clearly being violated. Yet, if organizations stand up against sexual assault and instill in our society respect for an individual’s control over his or her body, perhaps people will also begin to respect a woman’s right to choose contraception and abortion. Perhaps standing up for victims of sexual assault is a “gate-way” act that will encourage organizations and people in the future to stand up for women who want to make their own choice about their bodies for their families.
It’s too easy to look away from the numbers and deny that sexual assault is prevalent in the United States. Who wants to believe that so many men, women and children are violated? Yet closing our eyes to the issue is not the answer. We have to accept that sexual assault in the United States is still a problem and create a culture that rewards, not punishes, victims that come forward. Currently, 54% of rapes and sexual assaults are not reported to the police and only about 3% of rapists ever serve a day in jail. We have to make victims feel safer so they are willing to come forward. And we need to force our justice system to consider rape and sexual assault serious crimes.
One particularly poignant example of the problem of sexual assault in the Untied States is in our military. On April 14, CNN reported that in 2011 there were 3,191 military sexual assaults reported but that given the fact that most sexual assaults are not reported, the Pentagon itself estimates the actual number is probably closer to 19,000. To add on to the horrific fact that the assaults took place at all was the reaction of the military. CNN found a pattern of women and men receiving a psychiatric diagnosis and military discharge after reporting sexual assault. A personality diagnosis discharge comes with a financial cost as well as an emotional one. Since a personality disorder diagnosis falls under a pre-existing condition, it does not constitute a service-related disability and means sexual assault victims with this discharge do not receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. And, on top of all of that, they would lose education benefits under the GI bill.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta acknowledged the problem of sexual assault in the military in mid-April when he laid out new rules to combat it. Whether these changes will actually take place and make a difference remains to be seen. However it’s important that we as a society and individual organizations recognize the problem of sexual assault that exists in our country and work to fight against it. April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a great tool to spread knowledge of the problem but, in truth, every month should be sexual assault awareness month.