I just got home from the Rape Crisis Outreach Center. It feels good to be able to type those words, to be able to know what I know. It also reminds me that there are many, many people – many of them women – who will never know that such an institution exists, or have access to it. Perhaps there are some readers who have no idea what I’m talking about. I didn’t know what a rape crisis team was until about 2 years ago. But knowing about it has changed, forever, my life and my view of gender.
Like many WomanStats coders, I live in Provo, Utah, a community with varying and complex levels of freedom for women. One of the reasons I’ve chosen those two words is Utah’s very real, somewhat hidden, problem with sexual violence. Rape is the only violent crime for which Utah has a higher rate than the national average, and that only counts reported rapes (which are a minority). And according to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, 1 in 3 Utah women will experience some kind of sexual assault in her lifetime, and 1 in 8 will be raped.
Of course, Utah is not the only state in the U.S. that seems to be affected by this problem. Not by a long shot. Rape and sexual assault is reported on a regular basis in every single state in our country, and our national levels of the crime are higher than those in many other countries. As a feeble-minded woman, I’m stumped: haven’t we all evolved? What is this, the Middle Ages? What makes sexual violence continue to be a significant issue, wherever you go: across borders, through time?
Here’s where WomanStats comes in. A cross-country look at different states’ rates of sexual violence shows that every nation in the world has a problem with rape, some more than others, and some especially as a result of political or social turmoil in those countries. (I recommend logging in to WomanStats and doing some reading on different countries and their views of sexual violence. Kind of fascinating.) This, to me, is what makes sexual violence such an important issue for women especially, and one that deserves to be looked at across national borders. Sexual violence is clearly not an issue of pure culture, pure religion, or pure biology. Although it can be related to all those things, sexual violence is first and foremost an issue of gender, of women and men everywhere, no matter their nationality, and the way they have been trained to view each other and to think about their relationships.
My friend, Taylor Jacoby, is currently with some BYU students in Uganda. What she does there will be the fruition – but not completion – of a long personal, scholarly, and ethical study and debate she began a year ago. In the fall of 2010, she and I, both students of political science, began to delve more deeply into the issues of political violence in countries where women’s lives and bodies are the stockpile and the booty. We learned, for the first time, the extent and horror of the mass rapes in Bosnia, Guatemala, Rwanda, Liberia, and other countries. We learned about “war rape,” the systemic sexual assault of women – and sometimes men – that opposing forces use deliberately to destroy their enemy’s communities, social cohesion, and lives. We were depressed. It was about this time, however, that we happened to decide to volunteer for theCenter for Women and Children in Crisis, which houses Utah County’s Rape Crisis Team. Like most cities, Provo maintains a team of 40 or so volunteers – of which Taylor and I are two – who are trained to be with victims of sexual assault, whenever they may call and decide to report their attack. We counsel them over the phone, or meet them at Provo’s Gappmeyer Family Clinic to complete Code-R exams and explain to them the free therapy, victim reparation costs, and resources that are available to them. We also have blankets, extra clothes, and granola bars. We also have hands, unjudging eyes, and open ears. Taylor wants to look at the way that these responses to sexual assault – those in its aftermath, those that comfort, that allow trauma and victimization to be voiced and healed – may actually contribute to peace in war torn communities as much as the announcement of free elections might.
There seems to me an important connection here. Although anyone, male or female, can be raped, and male rapes are reported pretty frequently to the CWCIC team, sexual violence mostly seems to affect women. This is universal. This is why we need to examine sexual violence as a crime – not of sex, but of power.
But what is also universal are the things that change the lives of those who go through sexual violence: acknowledgment, a sense of power and control, and the ability to voice one’s traumatic feelings. There may not be extensive counseling services available to women in Uganda, Guatemala, or in many other places around the world, but there is rape. And so those services should be there, demanded, put on national budgets just like health care or education. And while we fight for these services in every nation of the world, I, in Provo, Utah, can be proud to know that there are services available to rape victims here. I can tell people about them, and they can tell other people about them. (Seriously, tell someone about them. Chances are they don’t know they exist.)
Having been able to counsel victims of sexual violence in Provo, Utah has given me perspective and awareness I never thought I could have regarding sexual violence in other places of the world – rape that may happen because of war, prejudice, unrest or despair. And so I encourage anyone who is interested in global women’s issues to, if you can, do something for the women of your own community. Do not neglect the good we can do in our own part of this globe, to become involved in the lives and issues of women all around us.
The monthly training meeting I just returned from featured a lesson on counseling rape victims who have deep shame. After a long discussion, our leader asked us a difficult question: “So, how can we fight shame?” There was a moment of silence, of thought. Finally, a team member in the front of the room said quietly, “Connection.” Ultimately, I think this answer is the relationship I see between WomanStats and the Utah County Rape Crisis Team. We can connect with the issues of those whose lives are far away by building compassionate connections with people around us.
For more information on the Center for Women and Children or the Rape Crisis Team, visithttp://www.cwcic.org or call 801-227-5038.