At the end of November, the City Paper published an article I wrote about sexual assault allegations at the College of Charleston and how rampant rape is on college campuses across the country. After that article came out, I got a lot of e-mails — from students at the college, alumni, and parents. And almost every person who wrote had this message: “I was raped.”
They wrote to let me know that they’d been sexually assaulted. They wanted me to know how damaging it had been to them, how they’d been laughed at and blamed, and how the rapist had experienced no repercussions whatsoever. They wrote because they want people to speak out about violence against women, to take it seriously, and to take real steps to prevent it from happening.
And then lo and behold, at the beginning of the new year, Republicans in the House of Representatives showed how seriously they take violence against women. They allowed the Violence Against Women Act to expire for the first time since 1994.
Normally the Violence Against Women Act is such an obviously good thing that it’s reauthorized with no fanfare and no controversy. Nobody wants to be seen in favor of violence against women. But this year, GOP leaders decided not to let the Violence Against Women Act come up for a vote on the House floor.
The Violence Against Women Act has done incredibly important work. Since 1996, the South Carolina attorney general’s office has used Violence Against Women Act funds on the S.T.O.P. Violence Against Women program which trains law enforcement officers, judges, and prosecutors on how to effectively deal with domestic violence. The program also collects statewide data on criminal domestic violence.
The Violence Against Women Act has funded a national domestic violence hotline which fields around 22,000 calls a month, and it made stalking a felony, which wasn’t the case before 1994. The act also designated that states treat instances of stranger rape and rape by a partner as equally criminal.
There are valid complaints that have been made against the act. For one, the Violence Against Women Act focuses almost exclusively on criminal justice responses; it does not address the kinds of structural injustices — racial and economic — that make poor women of color more vulnerable to violence. It also focuses on arrest and prosecution, rather than prevention efforts, like helping vulnerable populations get out of poverty.
However, the Republicans weren’t concerned with these issues. The main reason they blocked the bill is because it would offer support to victims of domestic violence that apparently many in the GOP don’t like: undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and Native Americans.
We know this was their motivation because in May the House approved its own revised version of the Violence Against Women Act, which removed protections for LGBT individuals, undocumented immigrants, and Native Americans — and the Republicans, including South Carolina’s entire GOP delegation in the House, voted for it. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor so far has refused to speak publicly about why he blocked the act’s reauthorization. As MSNBC host and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry asks, “All we do know is that while Republicans made compromises to avoid a so-called fiscal cliff, they were unwilling to do so in order to avoid dropping legal protections for women that have stood for nearly 20 years. Shouldn’t that require some explanation?”
I assume that lots of these Republican lawmakers are homophobes and racists, but even if they for some reason think that LGBT people are going to hell, why can’t they just leave that between them and God? Surely the men and women of the GOP understand that members of the LGBT community do not deserve to be beaten, raped, or stalked as long as they are here on this earth. And even if these Republicans are opposed to undocumented immigration and think it’s a problem, surely they don’t think that undocumented immigrants deserve to be beaten, raped, or stalked? And surely they understand that Native Americans don’t deserve to be beaten, raped or stalked either. Come on, now.
I’ve been rereading e-mails I received over the holiday season, e-mails that detailed the traumas that my students and their mothers experienced during college. I’ve been reading stories about the alleged gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio, and the soaring sexual assault rates at military colleges. And I’ve been preparing my students to volunteer with local organizations like My Sister’s House and People Against Rape, organizations whose services are in incredibly high demand but whose resources are quite limited. And I’m baffled that some of our national leaders are such jerks.