Rape and Terrorism

According to the Global Terrorism Database, 3029 people were killed by terrorists in the United States between 2000 and 2010. That’s an average of 275 people per year.

According to the U. S. Department of Justice, there were a total of 52,470 rapes in 2008 (the most recent year for which I could find posted data). Women are victimized approximately four times as frequently as men. Even if you disregard issues of underreporting, that’s about 10,000 men and 40,000 women raped in a single year.

A 2011 Congressional Research Study estimates the ten-year cost of the war on terror at $1.28 trillion, or $128 billion per year.

I couldn’t find an estimate on how much (or how little) the U.S. spends fighting rape and sexual violence each year. However, the Office on Violence Against Women is requesting a total of $412.5 million for their 2013 operating budget. For comparison, the Department of Homeland Security is requesting $59 billion.

These numbers aren’t perfect. But they do help give us an idea about our priorities. Here they are in graph form.

I’m not trying to argue that the budget for fighting sexual assault should necessarily be 190 times the budget for fighting terrorism. But imagine the difference if even a fraction of the money we spent on color-coded terror charts or airport security theater went into preventing sexual violence.

I debated for a long time before writing this post. Both rape and terrorism are important, powerful, and emotional issues, and I don’t want to trivialize either one. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me to discuss rape in the context of terrorism. The goal of terrorism is to create fear in a population. 9/11 succeeded in creating that fear.

So does rape.

The difference is that in the United States, the terror created by rape is a far more realistic day-to-day fear, especially for women. You have less than a one in a million chance of being killed by terrorists this year in the U.S., but according to a 2007 study by the Medical University of South Carolina, roughly 1 in 20 of college women were raped in a single year. (The study notes that only about 12% of these rapes were reported to police.) A National Institute of Justice study found that 18% of women–almost 1 in 5–experienced a completed or attempted rape at some point in their lives.

The prevalence of rape and violence against women creates an atmosphere of terror and the awareness that strangers, friends, even family members could be potential attackers. Phaedra Starling wrote about this in a 2009 essay titled Schrödinger’s Rapist:

“Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these? … When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist.”

Not every woman follows these rules. But many follow at least some, and most of the women I’ve talked to live their lives with this kind of awareness. With the knowledge that rape and assault are a real danger. They make choices based on a risk assessment and constant, underlying kind of fear that’s utterly alien to most men. Not slaves to that fear, but always aware.

How then is sexual violence not a form of terrorism, at least in its effects? But because this kind of violence is seen as a “women’s issue,” we deem it unimportant. We shift our resources to other problems. We play political games with laws like the Violence Against Women Act.

You want to fight a war against terror? Try putting money and resources into the backlog of rape kits. Try funding sexual assault counseling and women’s shelters and SANE nurse programs. Try teaching people at a young age what rape really is. Try teaching men to hold themselves and each other accountable, and to intervene when they see signs of sexual coercion and abuse. Try providing training to prosecutors and judges and police departments.

In other words, try taking the problem seriously.