This month, I bring you a guest post that reminds us of a prevalent crime which is often kept secret, causing both physical and mental health issues for survivors. I welcome Jennifer Rothchild, PhD, to Girl w/Pen. She is Associate Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies (GWSS) Program at the University of Minnesota, Morris. One of the founders of the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Development section and author of the book Gender Trouble Makers: Education and Empowerment in Nepal (Routledge, 2006), she researches gender and development, families, childhoods, and social inequalities.
One in five women will be assaulted in their lifetime. But in my story, it was 3 out of 5 women.
I was one of the lucky ones. There are five of us best friends. Three were raped. Their stories are their stories, and not mine to tell. But I will and want to tell you, as I tell my students when we talk about intimate violence, it could have very easily been me. My friends’ stories and mine are exactly the same: Our families and home lives were similar, we went to school together and had the same classes. We went to parties together, and we more often than not drank at those parties. We wished for the same boys to notice us, to like us. We all flirted with the really cute ones. Our lives were mirrors of one another. The only difference: One other friend and I just got lucky. She and I do not have our own story of rape.
That was the 1980s and 1990s. Flash forward to today: Those women and I are still best friends. We are professionals, partners, mothers. Are my friends who were assaulted “over it?” No. They are happy and successful, but they never will be “over it.” The White House Council on Women and Girls (2014) reports that sexual assault victims often suffer from a wide range of physical and mental health problems that can follow them for life – including depression, anxiety, chronic pain, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also more likely than non-victims to develop alcohol and substance abuse problems and attempt or consider suicide.
Again, 1 in 5 women – or nearly 22 million – have been raped in their lifetimes. In calculating the prevalence of rape, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counts completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration. Like other researchers, the CDC considers attempted forced penetration to fall within the definition of “rape” because that crime can be just as traumatizing for victims. As the CDC further explains, the most common form of rape victimization experienced by women was completed forced penetration: 12.3% of women in the United States were victims of completed forced penetration; 8% were victims of alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration, and 5.2% were victims of attempted forced penetration. These are lifetime estimates, and a victim might have experienced multiple forms of these subtypes of rape in her lifetime.
By now, most of us have heard the story of “Jackie” who claims to have been gang-raped at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia and the fallout from her story in Rolling Stone magazine now under dispute. Less well known is the story of Emma Sulkowicz, a visual arts major at Columbia University, who is carrying around her dorm mattress until her rapist is removed from campus. Sulkowicz says she was raped in her dorm room bed when she was a sophomore, and as her senior thesis project, she carries her mattress everywhere as a visual representation of the violence she bears.
What’s happening here?
As a sociologist who focuses on gender and sexuality, I argue that there is a confluence of sex and violence. Specifically, the way we socialize girls and boys about sex has deep and intractable roots in violence. I assert that in order to address and understand this we need to put our sociological imaginations to work.
C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination” begins with his concept of “a personal trouble,” what one thinks of as a private matter, exclusively their own and not experienced by anyone else. For my best friends, my students, and the women whose stories have been splashed all over the news and the sexual violence committed against them—each woman could think of her story as a personal trouble of her own. Mills notes:
…people do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction… Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary people do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of people they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. (1959:3-4)
But the troubles for these women are not only their own. Mills would contend that they are also “public issues,” reflecting just one of many such “troubles” that comprise a complex organization “of an historical society as a whole… [troubles that] overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life.” As such, personal troubles such as “Jackie’s” are connected to public issues, such as gender inequality and the way we define sex in our society.When we situate individual stories like “Jackie’s” in a broader social-historical context, we can visualize the intersections of individual biographies within social structures. We are then, as Mills argued, better equipped to not only understand society, but also to transform it.
In my individual biography, I was lucky, and still feel lucky. I am also angry. I am angry that my friends were hurt. I am angry that people I care about are still being hurt. I teach about intimate violence, and every year, I talk about trigger warnings and offer students an “out” if the material is too painful for them. I Every single year, I have at least one or two students come forward and explain that they have been victimized—either directly or as a secondary victim—and would like to not participate in my section on intimate violence.
And just last week, a student in another class came to my office to tell that she had been gang raped last year, and also a former student emailed me to share the story of her having been recently sexual assaulted.
Clearly, these stories do not happen in isolation. Sexual assault is a public issue. The sexual assault epidemic is real, even if sometimes reporters get it wrong.
I was lucky, but whether or not individuals are sexually assaulted should not be about luck. Not just sociologists, but all of us need to think critically about how we socially construct both gender and sexuality and how we socialize youth to think about sex and violence. Using our sociological imaginations we can move towards positive social change. Because, in the case of sexual assault, one is too many.