President Obama recently issued a statement recognizing April as “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” Good, I thought, after reading the first line. We need a strong leader to speak out against the silence of sexual violence. Then I read the rest. Seems Obama may not be the right guy.
President Obama recently issued a statement recognizing April as “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” Good, I thought, after reading the first line. We need a strong leader to speak out against the silence of sexual violence.
Then I read the rest.
Seems Obama may not be the right guy.
His statement was such perfunctory milquetoast – you’d think he was issuing a proclamation in support of Girl Scout Cookies.
Oh, he made a few good points – like noting that sexual violence can lead to “long-term health problems and severe emotional harm.”
But while adding that victims “need an array of services,” including “accompaniment to criminal justice proceedings,” he nowhere notes that such accompaniment is rarely needed because most cases reported to law enforcement are never accepted for prosecution in the first place.
Of those that are accepted, a majority are dismissed or resolved without a conviction. Even more disturbing is that few rapists spend any time behind bars.
So while it’s nice to suggest that victims need services, the truth is they already have access to plenty of support – free of charge. What’s missing is justice, a basic right denied victims of sexual violence every day across the United States.
Vice President Joe Biden knows this already. He submitted an important study to Congress in the 1990s, aptly titled “Rape: Detours on the Road to Equal Justice,” in which he noted a gross disparity in prosecution and punishment rates when comparing theft crimes to sex crimes.
Nothing much has changed since then. In fact, if the president’s failure to mention this is any indication, this disparity appears to be widely accepted.
Obama’s statement should have included a federal commitment to real change with regard to these “detours.” Instead, the president made the awkward observation that a victim should receive services “even if [she] chooses not to report the crime to the police.”
While some rape victims are understandably reluctant to report the crime out of fear they will be blamed, shamed or simply not believed, even oblique tolerance for these roadblocks denies victims equal citizenship.
He could have at least said he wanted to combat these problems, or mentioned that he felt frustrated because rape is the most underreported and underprosecuted crime in the United States.
But he didn’t.
If that isn’t bad enough, Obama’s silence on the growing problem of child sex abuse was deafening, especially in light of the past decade’s spike in demand for child porn because of the Internet. While child sex abuse need not have been the president’s key focus in a statement about “Sexual Violence Awareness Month,” it was worth a mention.
The worst thing by far, however, was Obama’s inexplicable failure to use any language suggesting that rape is a human rights violation, one that undermines women’s equality of citizenship.
You’d think that with Joe Biden’s expertise on the issue, and Obama’s personal background, he would understand particularly well the right of all human beings to be free from targeted violence.
Judging by his recent comments during the NATO summit in France on a proposed law in Afghanistan that would legalize the rape of a wife by her husband, Obama clearly appreciates the way that sexual violence interferes with basic freedoms for women.
He called the law “abhorrent” and disrespectful to “human rights.” Hmmm. Maybe our president thinks women in other countries, but not this one, have a “human right” to be free from sexual violence.
Calling for more “awareness” about sexual violence is a good idea. But a statement that fails in so many basic ways to tell the truth about such a serious problem is a sign that either Obama doesn’t really want a whole lot of “awareness,” or he needs to start letting Joe Biden handle the issue.
I’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt for now – and assume the statement wasn’t a reflection of how he really feels. I admit, though, that I’m worried that he won’t really “get it” until someone whispers in his ear that if black victims of racist violence were systematically being denied legal redress, he would refuse to sign a proclamation that didn’t start with the phrase “human rights” and end with a firm condemnation of “unequal justice.”
Wendy Murphy is a leading victims rights advocate and nationally recognized television legal analyst. She is an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston and a radio talk show host. She can be reached at email@example.com.