Last month, a student at Chapel Hill High School reported that she had been raped by two fellow students in the woods across the street from her school. Later that same week, an employee at Britthaven nursing home was sexually attacked by a coworker while she was at work. In the background of these attacks looms an unsolved series of rapes and sexual assaults in Carrboro last month, assaults likely the work of one man.
All of this occurred in less than one month, within four miles of Chapel Hill’s downtown post office. Five reported attacks on five women in one small part of one small county of one state, in what most would describe as a pretty peaceful town.
But peaceful for whom? Not for the police, who are now investigating five attacks. Not for stunned students, nursing home employees and women who live alone, fearful for their safety. And the area is certainly not peaceful for the victims and those who love them. For these people, the myth of a peaceful hometown has been shattered, replaced by tears, fears and horrible memories.
Maybe this is just a coincidence that these attacks are occurring here and now, a statistical fluke of bad luck. Perhaps things are better in the rest of the state, or the rest of the world, for that matter.
Crime statistics and the claims of victims, though, dispel this wishful thinking; in fact, almost anywhere you go women are continually victimized by sexual violence. In this state alone, and only in a recent 10-year period, 22,218 women reported that they had been raped. That number is more than double the number of deaths since the U.S. invaded Iraq last March, Iraqi, U.S., and coalition fatalities combined. The victims in North Carolina’s sexual attacks survived, but the comparison to war is entirely appropriate, especially in light of the rapes reported by U.S. servicewomen overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sexual violence is a kind of war, a subtle and protracted battle waged by men for the sexual control of women, by force.
This war is aided by silence. Aside from society’s reluctance to deal with the subject head-on, the pain and trauma of rape is so profound that many women simply don’t–or can’t–admit it. It is widely understood that reported rapes are only part of the story, and that only half (or fewer) of women sexually assaulted report their attack to police.
There are many reasons why a woman would choose to hold her silence in the aftermath of a rape, reasons of intense shame and embarrassment, or the fear that no one will believe them. Sometimes it is the fear of more violence that keeps a woman silent, especially women in abusive relationships.
But one of the most insidious reasons that women keep their silence is because society as a whole prefers to keep silent about it. The press and media report on rapes when they happen, but seldom report on sexual assault as anything other than a series of isolated incidents (the Carrboro rapist notwithstanding). It is never regarded as a crisis, or as the epidemic of violence which it is, and it never seems to generate much discussion.
This silence must end. Sexual violence must become a topic of concern, not a subject of shame. Boys must be taught that having sex with a woman against her will is rape. Men must be reminded that it is they who have the obligation to put an stop to sexual violence, by refusing to allow women to be mistreated and by calling out men who make excuses for rape.
And above all, men must acknowledge that they–we–are each responsible for ending sexual violence. We have the power to commit sexual assault, therefore, we have the ability to stop it. Like the feminist graffiti above the occasional urinal says, “The power to end rape is in your hands.”