EDINBURG, March 10 - In April, 2012, U.S. Senate Democrats and 15 Republicans passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
The law, when originally adopted in 1994 and in each subsequent reauthorization, passed both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support. In each reauthorization, the law was strengthened to include more types of crime, cover more groups of women, and enhance penalties.
The 2012 Senate bill added new protections for women, specifically college students, partly in response to the brutal murder of a coed at the University of Virginia. Perhaps the next time college athletes rape coeds, they will be made to answer for their crimes, rather than receive a wink and a nod from university officials and local police as happened at Notre Dame.
The bill also included protections for Native American women, one-third of whom will be raped in their lives, and 60 percent of whom will be subject to some kind of sexual assault.
For the first time, protection was extended specifically to one of the most vulnerable class of women in this country - immigrants. Undocumented immigrants who work in agriculture and related industries, or sweatshops are extremely vulnerable because of their very legitimate fear, if they report being sexually assaulted to police, they will be deported. Their attackers use threats of deportation to coerce compliance.
The Senate bill also included protections for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community. LGBT victims of sexual violence are far less likely to have police take crimes against them seriously, to have their assailants prosecuted vigorously, and to receive services generally provided to heterosexual sexual violence victims.
After the bill passed the Senate, it was killed by House as Republicans who sought to gut the bill by removing all of the new protections added by the Senate and weakening provisions previously enacted into law. Naturally, no Republican openly declared him or her self to to be anti-woman. Quite the contrary, their fervid desire to weaken the law was done out of their professed desire to protect women. Go figure.
Consequently, the VAWA expired at the end of last year. In another bipartisan vote, the Senate passed VAWA again this January. The House continued its opposition by voting on its “poison pill” version. Fortunately, enough Republicans joined Democratic opposition to defeat the House bill. The Senate version subsequently passed the House with a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Upon final passage, several Republicans who voted AGAINST the final bill, but FOR the poison pill version, claimed credit for reauthorizing the VAWA. Such hypocritical intellectual dishonesty from wrong-wing-anti-women Republicans should not be surprising.
What might be surprising is 11 wrong-wing House Republican women voted against reauthorization. Ironically, some of these female Representatives have been at the forefront of proclaiming they supported reauthorizing VAWA.
However, Republican disregard for the pervasive (sexual) abuse of women in this country should not distract us from the larger problem of a nation insufficiently mobilized against the prevalence of (sexual) violence against women. Some people say rape is a crime of passion. It is not; rape is a crime of violence, extreme violence. Some say it is just “boys being boys” or “letting off steam.” No. Rape most often is deliberate, premeditated. Men who rape once will rape again, and will continue raping until they are stopped.
Rape and sexual violence may appall us, even outrage us. But we also largely accept it. Seldom do we actually do much to confront it. Events like “take back the night” rallies are held with some regularity, mostly on college campuses. While helpful, such actions, by themselves, will not break our culture of rape.
At least four factors contribute to the persistence of our rape culture. First, there is the simple history of the tolerance of rape, and our reluctance to confront that history. Too often, rape is something we do not want to talk about.
Second, we still live in a male dominant society where men believe they have the right to control women, and to possess them in every way, including sexually.
Congress is an excellent example. While the nation is about 51 percent female, there are only 17 women in the U.S. Senate. Of the 438 members of the U.S. House, only 76 (17 percent), are women. As noted above, 11 of those (14.5 percent) belong to the Republican Rapist & Domestic Violence Apologists Boy’s Club.
Society generally objectifies women, looking at them as objects rather than as human beings. Women are means to ends. Need to sell a box of Special K? Create a TV ad with a beautiful woman with great legs and a perfect body wearing a bikini. What does any of that have to do with cereal? What does a beautiful woman in a bikini have to do with a Mustang or Corvette?
It is a process of association. If a woman wants to look like the woman in the swimsuit, the message is she should eat Special K. If a guy wants a woman like the one in the car ad, he needs to buy the car.
Fourth, we do an extremely poor job of educating ourselves, and especially our children. We much more comprehensive sex education in our public schools, something adamantly opposed by wrong-wingers. Yet, the data are clear: The younger children are when sex education is begun, the more comprehensive the program, the longer children wait to become sexually active. Teen pregnancy and abortion rates also are lower, AND the instance of rape and sexual assault the lower.
For wrong-wingers, this is counter intuitive. But if we truly want to break our culture of rape, it is not just a matter of defeating candidates who are sexist apologists for rapists. We must educate our children. Women in bikinis to sell corn flakes or cars may be okay. However, we should understand this creates a false image; and we must teach our children to see women as human beings, not objects to be used and abused.
Women must be encouraged to report rape and sexual assault. Their reports must be taken seriously and acted upon immediately - not 15 days after a rape and five days after the victim committee suicide, as happened at Notre Dame. Because men who rape once rape again, the penalty for the first rape must be sure, swift, and severe.
Much work needs to be done. We are moving far too slow.
Samuel Freeman is a political science professor based in the Rio Grande Valley. His “Left is Right” columns appear regularly in the Guardian.