Sexual assault in the time of Trump
Eight years of progress and funding for programmes countering sexual violence against women are about to be undone.
“Affirmative consent, for those who don’t know, is the idea that if you don’t consent at every stage of a sexual encounter, it’s rape. That means asking for every kiss and asking for every boob squeeze. It’s almost as if feminists want everyone to remain celibate.”
These words were spoken last autumn to a packed auditorium of students at Auburn University in Alabama during a speech called How Feminism Hurts Women by Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos is senior editor for the far-right media outlet Breitbart News. The man who hired him is Stephen Bannon, ex-CEO of Breitbart News and President Donald Trump’s chief strategist. Students didn’t have to guess at Yiannopoulos’ political affiliation: he addressed the students sporting a “Team Trump” jersey.
On his tour of American universities, Yiannopoulos is often joined by Christina Hoff Sommers, who in 2014 wrote an article entitled Rape Culture is a Panic Where Paranoia, Censorship and False Accusations Flourish which appeared in Time magazine. Sommers has also written for A Voice for Men, considered a hate site by the Southern Law Poverty Center.
Their viewpoints directly contradict the United States government’s Department of Justice website, which states that 21 percent of female undergraduate students – approximately one in five – experience sexual assault while at university.
Yiannopoulos and Sommers dismiss this number. They don’t like similar statistics from the Center for Disease Control or the Association of American Universities either.
They also don’t like that former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been using this statistic to draw attention to – and to allocate resources for – campus rape. It angers them.
Yiannopoulos and Sommers aren’t alone. Behind them is a burgeoning men’s rights movement who believe there is a vast and powerful women’s lobby, backed by the White House, the National Organization for Women and rich female celebrities, among others. Their agenda? ” It’s about man-hating,” Yiannopoulos says .
And what is the most hateful thing that they do? They enacted legislation and support programmes to protect women.
Eight years of progress
In 1994, Biden (then a senator) authored the landmark Violence Against Women Act, still the primary legislation protecting American women. And when Biden joined Obama’s team in 2008, he requested that his vice-presidential staff, in addition to the Justice Department, work on violence against women.
The issue of campus rape seized Biden, who became a crusader. Like Yiannopoulos, he launched a university tour, but Biden’s tour came out squarely on the side of young women. Speaking at the University of Pittsburgh, Biden said that prosecutors are still allowed to ask rape victims what they were wearing; “What difference does it make, what a woman was wearing? […] No one, particularly a court of law, has the right to ask any of those questions,” he said.
With Biden’s prodding, the White House issued tough new guidance regarding a 1972 law called Title IX: Universities would combat sexual assault on campus – or risk losing government funding. As of March 2016, 167 universities were under investigation for violating Title IX.
A special White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was created, and a public campaign, “It’s On Us”, was launched.
Trump's convenient demonisation of immigrants, minorities and Muslims will mask a real epidemic of sexual violence against women - largely perpetrated by white, middle-class men.
Reports of campus sexual assault increased, which legal experts and academics attributed to heightened awareness of the issue. United Educators, a company providing insurance services to 1,300 US colleges and universities, stated that sexual assault claims among its clients increased twofold from 2011 to 2013.
Referring to the past eight years, Lisa Maatz, vice president of the American Association of University Women, said: “We’ve had a perfect storm around campus sexual assault. Survivors coming forward at an unprecedented rate, an administration that took an interest, and the right staffing at the Education Department to start getting things done.”
But a new far-right universe has come to power in the White House, and whether you listen to Jeff Sessions, nominee for Attorney General, or examine leaked Trump team proposed budgets, funding for the Violence Against Women Act will cease. That means 25 grants focused on “reducing domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking by strengthening services for victims and holding offenders accountable” will disappear.
And in scrapping The Violence Against Women Act, the new president, one who prides himself on being pro-police, will also be cutting grant programmes which teach law enforcement staff how to respond to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Trump’s convenient demonisation of immigrants, minorities and Muslims will mask a real epidemic of sexual violence against women – largely perpetrated by white, middle-class men.
Think of the Vanderbilt University football players who gang-raped an unconscious young woman. Or former Stanford University swimmer, Brock Turner, found guilty of multiple felony counts including penetration of an unconscious person.
“If you cannot consent because you are unconscious, it is rape. Period.” said Biden.
An invisible crime
Brock Turner’s father argued that his son shouldn’t have been jailed “for 20 minutes of action”.
I suspect Brock Turner’s father would say he can’t see the damage. With a dead body the crime in undeniable. Unless there is a black eye or broken bones, the crime of rape isn’t visible. Rape survivors can still be very pretty.
I know that for a fact. A few months shy of 15, I was abducted, drugged, raped and left in darkness in a ditch in an Everglades swamp. When I returned to school a few days later, I looked like the same pretty teenager, green eyes and long curly hair, as before.
I was quiet, very quiet – that was the only external sign. But inside everything – everything – had changed. My life became panic attacks, de-personalisation and suicidal thoughts so relentless that twice, for my own safety, I had to put myself into hospital.
There weren’t programmes like the ones implemented by the Violence Against Women Act available to me. There was nothing.
Years later, during rape counselling at St Vincent’s Hospital in New York, I would repeat endlessly to the therapist: “Why me? I never even kissed a boy.”
I’m a writer and still, after all these years, I can’t find words for what was stolen from me. Almost no one in my life knows I was raped. Keeping it quiet somehow made me feel as if I could keep that young, trusting girl whose dream was to kiss a boy she liked … alive. She didn’t deserve to die.
And that’s how almost all rape victims feel.
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Alongside Biden at the Oscars, Lady Gaga performed a song she had written about her own rape at age 19: “‘Til it happens to you, you don’t know/ How it feels/ How it feels/ ‘Til it happens to you, you won’t know/ It won’t be real”
That’s why when you hear the Department of Justice statistics … Believe them. Every young woman’s life after rape is changed in ways that you can never see. Or understand.
These next four years in America will be very different than the past eight.
As a rape survivor, that terrifies me.
Gina Benevento is a former UN diplomat based in Jerusalem, now living and working in Madrid as a strategic communications consultant.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.