Despite having made great strides toward gender equality, American society remains rather antifeminist. Yes, women have the right to vote. Yes, discrimination on the basis of sex is illegal. However, these official mandates have not changed the cultural perception of women as the weaker sex.
One illustration of this is violence against women, which presents a problem across the globe. Sexual violence, in particular, can be used as a weapon in political conflict and is rampant in war-torn countries. For instance, health centers in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo estimate that 40 local women are raped every day. Following a civil war in Liberia, 92% of 1,600 women surveyed reported being victims of sexual violence, including rape. Meanwhile, in Darfur, women and girls live under the constant threat of rape by Sudanese Government soldiers, militia, and rebels.[i]
In addition to the global problem of sexual violence as a weapon of war, it is also a serious issue at the relationship level. Surveys from the World Health Organization show that 15% of women in Japan and 70% of women in Ethiopia and Peru experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner.[ii] According to data from The United Nations Children’s Fund, 35% of women surveyed in Egypt were beaten by their husbands at some point in the marriage. In Israel, 30% reported sexual coercion by their husbands in the previous year.[iii]
The United States is not much of an exception. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reports that approximately 17.7 million women in the country have been rape victims. 28% of rapes are committed by an intimate partner.[iv]
Intimate partner violence has important implications for the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The sexual transmission of HIV occurs primarily through unprotected sex.[v] Women in abusive relationships have limited ability to negotiate whether they have sex at all, much less whether condoms are used. Additionally, the trauma and tearing experienced in forced encounters increases the risk of the virus’s transmission. [vi]
Currently, not much research has been done on the prevalence of AIDS resulting from sexual coercion in the United States. According to the National Center For Victims, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency responsible for tracking the spread of AIDS, does not record cases by consensual and non-censual sex but mainly by age, gender, race and risk group.[vii] However, this relationship has been noted in other countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the high rate of sexual violence has been linked to the region’s high infection rates. [viii]
Despite troubling situations like this, gender inequality is not always acknowledged as a legitimate social problem. For instance, I recently had a conversation with my friend Kristen, in which she expressed a desire for feminists to “stop harping.”
“Harping?” I replied incredulously. “For equal rights?”
“We have equal rights. And the spousal abuse rate is 50/50,” she said as if this settled the matter.
“There are other indicators of inequality,” I said slowly, taking a deep breath in an effort to avoid exploding and thus hurting my cause by living up to the hysterical woman stereotype—one I knew Kristen believed. “Like the pay gap—women get 77 cents to the dollar for doing the same job as a man.”
“So what?” she said. “I’m content. Can’t we just leave it at that?”
I later discovered that Kristen’s statistic on spousal abuse was sorely mistaken. The National Crime Victimization Survey reports that 85 % of cases feature female victims. Of course, domestic violence comes in other forms as well—wives may abuse their husbands, women may abuse their female partners, and men may abuse their male partners. Abuse also occurs in non-spousal relationships, particularly among young people. A report from the Bureau of Justice found that 60 percent of a sample of 500 women ages 15 to 24 were currently in an abusive relationship, while all of them had experienced dating violence at some point in their lives.[ix]
Though there are many kinds of abuse, the typical battery case has a male aggressor and a female recipient. One of the key causes of battering is a pathological need for control rooted in misogyny. Abusive men see female partners as subordinates for whom they have the right to make decisions. If the woman does not comply with his will, the abusive man will resort to violent behavior to punish her and regain control.[x] This violence often includes sexual coercion.
Abusive relationships are not only prone to an increased risk of HIV infection, but correspond to other risk factors as well. Several studies show that women with histories of physical and sexual abuse are more likely to contract HIV.[xi] Sexual assault victims often experience an enhanced need for intimacy and sexualization of affection, which lead to repeated sexual encounters. They also may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the pain of abuse, impairing their judgment and prompting riskier sexual behavior. Research documents these victims as being more likely to have casual sex, to engage with multiple partners, and not to use protection.
So no, Kristen, we cannot just leave it at that. Feminism is not a redundant movement for an issue that the Constitution has already remedied. It’s not just about harping for a 23-cent-to-the-dollar pay raise. It is an effort to create a society that actually practices the values it claims to hold dear. And sometimes—like in the case of sexually coercive relationships leading to the spread of HIV/AIDS—it is a matter of life and death.
As AIDS is a dangerous, life-altering disease with no cure and limited treatments, it is crucial to prevent infection by targeting the roots of the problem. Where the problem can be attributed to a cultural promotion of domestic violence, we must begin by making a change in attitude. Though domestic violence affects both men and women, both the victimization of women and the cultural degradation of women are more common. Here are some things you as an individual can do to create an environment that promotes gender equality:
1. The media plays a big part in shaping your worldviews. Make informed choices about the movies and television you watch, the music you listen to, and the magazines you read. Look for sources of entertainment that portray women respectfully.
2. Watch your language. Remove words like “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore,” from your vocabulary. Even if you’re saying it jokingly to a friend, even if you’re talking about someone who will never hear you say it, these words make a statement about how you think women should be treated.
3. When you come across these and other situations that reinforce female degradation, speak up. Don’t pick fights, but start thoughtful conversations.
4. Help girls and women respect themselves for non-physical reasons. Compliment your female friends on their intelligence, hard work, and accomplishments at least as often as you do on their appearance.
5. Mentor the young people in your life. Encourage girls to live up to their full potential and encourage boys to treat girls as equals.
Whether or not you personally know someone who has contracted or is in danger of contracting HIV from an abusive partner, this issue is relevant to all of us. Everyone plays a part in the formation of our culture. You can accept the dominant trend or you can take a stand, set a better example, and inspire others to do the same. Make a difference within your own sphere of influence.
If you have been victim of domestic violence, please call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) for assistance.
For advice on counseling a friend or family member in an abusive relationship, follow this link: http://stoprelationshipabuse.org/educated/how-to-help-a-friend-who-is-being-abused/
If you think you may have recently been exposed to HIV/AIDS, there are treatment options available to help. Consult your doctor immediately.
--Melanie Pino Elliott
GET DOWN Youth Blog Squad
[i] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Rape: Weapon of War. http://www.ohchr.org/en/newsevents/pages/rapeweaponwar.aspx
[v] AVERT, 2011. HIV Transmission—Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.avert.org/hiv-aids-transmission.htm
[vi] World Health Organization, 2004. Intimate Partner Violence and HIV/AIDS.
[vii] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevetion, 2010. HIV in the United States. http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/resources/factsheets/us.htm
[viii] Sexual Violence and HIV/AIDS Transmission. Forced Migration Review, 2007. http://www.fmreview.org/FMRpdfs/FMR27/13.pdf
[ix] ACADV. Dating Violence. http://www.acadv.org/dating.html#statistics
[x] Lundy Bancroft, 2002. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.
[xi] The Well Project, 2011. Domestic Violence and HIV. http://www.thewellproject.org/en_US/Womens_Center/Domestic_Violence_and_HIV.jsp
[xii] The Advocates for Human Rights, 2006. Sexual Assault, HIV/AIDS and Other STIs. http://stopvaw.org/Sexual_Assault_HIV_AIDS_and_Other_STIs.html
Lundy Bancroft, 2002. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.