Here in the United States, where there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, the rape and gruesome murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi on December 16th was treated as an exceptional incident. The story of the alleged rape of an unconscious teenager by members of the Steubenville High School football team was still unfolding, and gang rapes aren’t that unusual here either. Take your pick: some of the 20 men who gang-raped an 11-year-old in Cleveland, Texas, were sentenced in November, while the instigator of the gang rape of a 16-year-old in Richmond, California, was sentenced in October, and four men who gang-raped a 15-year-old near New Orleans were sentenced in April, though the six men who gang-raped a 14-year-old in Chicago last fall are still at large. Not that I actually went out looking for incidents: they’re everywhere in the news, though no one adds them up and indicates that there might actually be a pattern.
There is, however, a pattern of violence against women that’s broad and deep and horrific and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or lurid details in a particular case get a lot of attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.
If you’d rather talk about bus rapes than gang rapes, there’s the rape of a developmentally disabled woman on a Los Angeles bus in November and the kidnapping of an autistic 16-year-old on the regional transit train system in Oakland, California—she was raped repeatedly by her abductor over two days this winter—and there was a gang rape of multiple women on a bus in Mexico City recently, too. While I was writing this, I read that another female bus-rider was kidnapped in India and gang-raped all night by the bus driver and five of his friends who must have thought what happened in New Delhi was awesome.
We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.
Here I want to say one thing: though virtually all the perpetrators of such crimes are men, that doesn’t mean all men are violent. Most are not. In addition, men obviously also suffer violence, largely at the hands of other men, and every violent death, every assault is terrible. But the subject here is the pandemic of violence by men against women, both intimate violence and stranger violence.
What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Gender
There’s so much of it. We could talk about the assault and rape of a 73-year-old in Manhattan’s Central Park last September, or the recent rape of a four-year-old and an 83-year-old in Louisiana, or the New York City policeman who was arrested in October for what appeared to be serious plans to kidnap, rape, cook, and eat a woman, any woman, because the hate wasn’t personal (though maybe it was for the San Diego man who actually killed and cooked his wife in November and the man from New Orleans who killed, dismembered, and cooked his girlfriend in 2005).
Those are all exceptional crimes, but we could also talk about quotidian assaults, because though a rape is reported only every 6.2 minutes in this country, the estimated total is perhaps five times as high. Which means that there may be very nearly a rape a minute in the U.S. It all adds up to tens of millions of rape victims.
We could talk about high-school- and college-athlete rapes, or campus rapes, to which university authorities have been appallingly uninterested in responding in many cases, including that high school in Steubenville, Notre Dame University, Amherst College, and many others. We could talk about the escalating pandemic of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the U.S. military, where Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that there were 19,000 sexual assaults on fellow soldiers in 2010 alone and that the great majority of assailants got away with it, though four-star general Jeffrey Sinclair was indicted in September for “a slew of sex crimes against women.”
We could talk about this as a global problem, looking at the epidemic of assault, harassment, and rape of women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that has taken away the freedom they celebrated during the Arab Spring—and led some men there to form defense teams to help counter it—or the persecution of women in public and private in India from “Eve-teasing” to bride-burning, or “honor killings” in South Asia and the Middle East, or the way that South Africa has become a global rape capital, with an estimated 600,000 rapes last year, or how rape has been used as a tactic and “weapon” of war in Mali, Sudan, and the Congo, as it was in the former Yugoslavia, or the pervasiveness of rape and harassment in Mexico and the femicide in Juarez, or the denial of basic rights for women in Saudi Arabia and the myriad sexual assaults on immigrant domestic workers there, or the way that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in the United States revealed what impunity he and others had in France, and it’s only for lack of space I’m leaving out Britain and Canada and Italy (with its ex-prime minister known for his orgies with the underaged), Argentina and Australia and so many other countries.
meant by “reproductive rights,” of course, is the right of women to control their own bodies. Didn’t I mention earlier that violence against women is a control issue?
One of the most exciting new political movements on Earth is the Native Canadian indigenous rights movement, with feminist and environmental overtones, called Idle No More. On December 27th, shortly after the movement took off, a Native woman was kidnapped, raped, beaten, and left for dead in Thunder Bay, Ontario, by men whose remarks framed the crime as retaliation against Idle No More. Afterward, she walked four hours through the bitter cold and survived to tell her tale. Her assailants, who have threatened to do it again, are still at large.
The New Delhi rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old who was studying physiotherapy so that she could better herself while helping others, and the assault on her male companion (who survived) seem to have triggered the reaction that we have needed for 100, or 1,000, or 5,000 years. May she be to women—and men—worldwide what Emmett Till, murdered by white supremacists in 1955, was to African-Americans and the then-nascent U.S. civil rights movement.
We have far more than 87,000 rapes in this country every year, but each of them is invariably portrayed as an isolated incident. We have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain. In India they did. They said that this is a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s everyone’s problem, it’s not isolated, and it’s never going to be acceptable again. It has to change. It’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours.
Rebecca Solnit has written a version of this essay three times so far, once in the 1980s for the punk magazine Maximum Rock’n’Roll, once as the chapter on women and walking in her 2000 book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and here. She would love the topic to become out of date and irrelevant and never to have write it again.
Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit