To ease the end of the week grad school anxiety, a group of classmates and myself get together every Sunday to make a weekly dinner. We cook, drink wine, relax and talk, spending a few quality hours in our non-school personas. What I love about these evenings is the fact that these women are some of the smartest people that I have met, and our conversations are always lively and interesting. That night, the topics of discussion ranged from projects we’re working on, to discovering spirituality, to our favourite guilty pleasure movies. However, there was one topic brought up that I really want to delve into. And that topic was rape.
Disclaimer: I study rape. I study rape in conflict, I study sexualized violence in developing communities, and I study gender based violence that occurs on a global scale. And while the stories I research are heartbreaking, the constant stream on my twitter feed updating me on the mass scale of violence being committed against women in all corners of the world has numbed me to any shock value. When I describe instances of gang rape to classmates, and they are visibly shaken and cannot finish listening, it always surprises me. Not because I’m immune to the scale of tragedy, but because hearing these stories has become the norm.
Which is why it really perturbed me when, during dinner, the discussion turned on to rape. Each girl had a story about someone close to them who had experienced sexualized violence or a sexual assault. These weren’t stories that occurred far away, things that I could read about and feel horrified, but analyze with an academic gaze. This was not rape halfway around the globe, but a discussion of real women we knew who had been sexually assaulted. The fact that the experience of rape was brought so close to my own personal life, well it really shook me up.
Every girl at that table had a story about a friend that had been sexually assaulted. That’s five out of five of us. Several weeks earlier, this trend was also demonstrated, at a panel discussing the role of women in the workforce. After the talk, several women started an informal discussion about the problems they have faced in their respective fields. Stories ranged from knowing of women who had been given unwanted attention by employers, to women who had been sexually assaulted while working abroad. These aren’t few and far between occurrences that happen to a certain segment of society, or events that only target a small subset of individuals. This is happening to women we know; friends, family, and community members.
A new report by the National Research Council in America has just been released demonstrating the widely underreported incidence of rape. In 2010, the US Census Bureau accounted for 188,280 incidents of rape and sexual assault. However, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey accounted for 1.3 million rapes for the same year. The FBI only reported 85,503. In Canada, 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, with the Statistics Canada Victimization survey in 2004 estimating that approximately 512,000 people had been sexually assaulted. This does not take into account that for every 100 cases, only six will come forward and report it. I could continue giving you more stats, but I think we all get the point by now. This isn’t a small number, and these aren’t rare occurrences.
We ended dinner that night on a somber note. As one of my friends said, “I don’t know how you do this. This topic is so depressing.” And to an extent, I do agree with her. These are horrible stories, about pain and suffering and violence committed against women on massive proportions. But that still doesn’t mean they aren’t one of the most important topics we need to be talking about. These stories can’t be seen as an outlier, happening to other people in other parts of the world. They happen right here at home. And while it horrifies me, and makes me so angry, I think that anger may be the most important thing that can come out of this. If our entire society was that angry about how often this occurs, if our entire society got angry at the rate of rape, if our entire society got so mad that they just couldn’t handle it anymore, we have to ask ourselves- would this still be a problem?