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Sexual Assault and the Other

On the Contemporary Politicization of Sexual Violence

Though it has been receiving a lot of attention in the media since the #MeToo movement started, sexual violence remains a poorly understood phenomenon. But the statistics on this crime of national proportions are getting better, because the climate of accountability and protection for victims has actually improved over the past two decades. In the United States one person is sexually assaulted every minute and a half. By the time you finish reading this sentence, one more such act will have been committed. One in six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. In any small group of people that you join, you will also find such a woman. We are everywhere. And most of us also know the man (over 92 percent of predators are males) who was the sexual predator. That is because 70 percent of victims are acquainted with our predator and only 28 percent of sexual violent actions are committed by someone who the victim would describe as a “stranger.”

These statistics are clear enough to suggested a number of things. Predators are neither Democrats nor Republicans in any politically significant manner. They are almost entirely males who happen to also be: predominantly white (57 percent); 30 years and older (50 percent); have already committed a crime for which they were convicted (51 percent); and will be repeat offenders within three years (51 percent). For anyone trying to connect the death of one victim of sexual assault to anything having to do with the presence of undocumented immigrants in the United States, this set of statistics is also a necessary corrector. If the politicians making a lot of noise at the moment about this issue actually cared about sexual violence, and we can only hope that is the case, then the focus of their ire should be on the population most likely to commit these acts: white men over the age of 30. How many of those people are undocumented immigrants? I will venture to say a tiny proportion at most. And since the people who are most likely to commit a sexual violent act are also people previously convicted of a crime, we already know that they are NOT likely to be undocumented migrants, for the simple reason that they would not have the opportunity to walk free and commit another crime, as our born and bred American men do.

I do not want to suggest that sexual violence is not committed in undocumented migrant communities. In fact, victims of sexual violence in those communities are afraid to speak and therefore we have very scant knowledge about the incidence of sexual violence among undocumented migrants. We only hear about them when, under extreme duress, one such victim might be desperate enough to confess to someone she views as an ally that a guard in her detention center has been raping her. The predators in those cases are U.S. citizens whose actions have received far less attention than the amount of time and energy spent in excoriating Molly Tibbets’ rapist and killer, an undocumented Mexican migrant. Fewer such victims speak out about predators among other undocumented migrants for obvious reasons, fear above all. If 30 percent of students on U.S. campuses do not report sexual violence out of fear (for themselves or the perpetrator), one can only imagine how much higher the incidence of non-reporting is among undocumented migrants.

Sexual violence is indeed a grave problem in this country. It is a problem that deserves attention, better studies and better policies. It deserves more human and financial resources dedicated to it. What it shouldn’t become is a political tool for scoring points on the question of immigration reform. The victims of sexual violence deserve better, as do all of us raising children we hope to bring up in a world in which women are to be considered citizens with the same rights as men, rather than as pawns in a cheap show of partisanship.

Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. Her book, The Century of Women. How Women Have Transformed the World since 1990, is forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield in May 2018. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.

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