07 December 2011

Dow Down, Rape Up

Some of my students at York College are social work majors.  Others work for City agencies, including the Department of Education and the Office of Human Resources. Ever since the  city and country have tumbled through a recession and into a depression, they have been telling me that there has been more domestic violence.  It's not hard to see what they mean:  I have heard more and more stories about it from acquaintances and through various grapevines.

Now, it seems, the level of violence against women (which is what most of those domestic violence cases are) has escalated.  Instead of conducting it behind closed doors, more and more of it is happening on the streets and in other public areas.  None of the female students I talk to, especially those who enter or leave the campus after dark, feels safe.  Several have told me about men who tried to sexually attack them; others have told me about people they know who were attacked.  And, if my experience is any indication of anything, I think at least a couple of those women are telling "proxy" stories, if you will:  They themselves may have been attacked, or have somehow escaped an attempted attack but, for a variety of reasons, didn't want to say that they were so victimized.  Also, nearly every researcher in this area reports that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes.

Now I've found out that in an area not far from where I live, a young woman was raped by three young men as she walked home from work in the wee hours of Sunday morning.   They dragged her into a parking lot in an industrial area of Long Island City, in the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge.  The particular spot where she was attacked is all but deserted most nights and weekends after workers go home, but the area around it is developing into a trendy residential area.  It is closer to Manhattan's East Side and Midtown than any place outside Manhattan, and the neighborhood offers unparalleled views of the UN, Empire State Building and other landmarks.  I sometimes ride or walk down that way for those reasons; also PS 1, a well-known art exhibition space located in a former public school, is just steps away.

What angers--but, unfortunately, doesn't surprise--me is the way some have responded to it.  Some have expressed and given support to the victims, but others--mainly in comments left in response to online stories of the incident--say, in essence, that she "had it coming to her."  Some insinuated that any woman walking through that area at the hour she was attacked must have been a prostitute, or was breaking the law in some other way.  Just from the standpoint of logic, such a response is offensive:  After all, do people say that people who drive too fast, sell marijuana or commit other kinds of low-level crime "deserve" to be the victims of violent sexual assault? Of course, the assumption that the young woman was a "street walker" is equally offensive.  News reports said that she lived and worked nearby; my guess is that she was a waitress in one of the bars or diners within blocks of the site or, perhaps, was dancing in one of the clubs.  People who do those kinds of work often are going home at three, four or five in the morning. (In fact, I've had students who came from such jobs to morning classes I taught!)  

The thing is, getting raped--or simply living a life that is, in various ways, shaped by the threat of such crimes--has absolutely nothing to do with one's age, physical attractiveness or actual or perceived economic status.  It's all a  matter of domination and control.  Since my transition, and especially since my surgery, I can see that some men see women's bodies and wills as things to be controlled and dominated--or broken, if we won't submit.  When such men lose whatever "grip" they have on the world--for example, when they lose their jobs--or when they never had that "grip" in the first place, they get angry.  And they turn that anger on women, gays, transgenders, members of races or nationalities or religions other than their own, or anyone whom they feel is not in his or her "place."

Of course, one of the problems with acting on such (mis-) perceptions is that the people such men attack are, as often as not, little if any better off than they are.  If the young woman who was attacked was walking home from a job as a waitress or dancer, she probably wasn't making very much money and wasn't much, if at all, in a better social or economic position than those young men.  Furthermore, whatever she has, she didn't get by taking anything away from those guys.  They never would have gotten whatever job she was working; even if they could have had it, they probably wouldn't have taken it, or wouldn't have lasted more than a week in it.  (I've worked in a coffee shop and know how frustrating it can be to deal with customers!)  

Naturally, I feel sympathy for the young woman who was attacked.  I also feel very, very worried, for I can't help but to think "there's more where that came from."  I hope that there isn't, but if economic conditions continue to deteriorate, I don't know what will stop the tide of violence against women from swelling.  Meantime, I advise my female students, co-workers and friends to be very, very careful. Then again, I don't think most of them need to be told that.

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