What Sexual Terrorism Looks Like

This is part of an opinion piece I wrote for my local newspaper, the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, published last Thursday, March 14:

As I drove south out of Jacksonville on U.S. 67 to pick my husband up at the St. Louis airport, I thought of her.  The 16-year old girl who punched the cop impersonator in the face when he assaulted her, before she got out of his non-police-car, got away, and went for help.  We’ve read her story, and now several others, in the Journal-Courier over the past month.

I thought of how I want to tell her she did the right thing.  How brave she was in what must have been a terrifying moment of vulnerability, alone with a monster in the dark, in the middle of the country, when everyone else was probably asleep at home.  How much courage it took for her to strike back, get away, and go for help.

I also thought about what I would do.  I scanned the highway around me for that reported white car.  I  kept track of how far it was to each next town in case I needed help, made sure I knew where my hazard lights button was, even fantasized about how I could pull over, take a picture of him and his license plate with my iPhone before speeding away toward the next police station and finally some justice.  I knew that last one was too risky, though.  As I drove through town after town, I realized that since it was the middle of the day, the odds of this predator being out were pretty slim.  So I eased up on making my plans.

Then I got angry.

You see, we live in a culture that tolerates violence against women.  Why else would women be about 14 times more likely than men to be sexually assaulted?  What other explanation can there be for the fact that Republicans in the 112th Congress let the Violence Against Women Act expire, and then more than 130 House Republicans and 22 Senate Republicans voted AGAINST its reauthorization?  This after a 2012 election season in which too many members of the GOP said indefensible things about rape and women’s bodies.  They didn’t prevail, thankfully, and President Obama signed the renewal of the 1994 act, which provides increased legal protections for victims, and services like a national hotline, funding for shelters and domestic violence agencies, and enhanced training for local law enforcement, on March 7, 2013.

This is is how it is for women in a patriarchal culture.  Don’t walk alone.  Carry your keys so that one sticks out from between your fingers as an added weapon if you have to punch someone.  Check the backseat of the car before you get in.  Take a self-defense class.  The threat of assault and rape is something that girls and women learn to live with every single day.  The statistics are well known:  Over 200,000 people are victims of sexual assault every year.  The CDC reports that 1 in 5 women (18.6 %), and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) experience rape at some point in their lifetime.

So women are taught that we have to defend ourselves.

And now, for women in Morgan and Sangamon counties, we have to come up with an action plan just because we are driving down the highway alone.  Here’s the truth:  When my husband drives down the highway to come and pick me up at the St. Louis airport, he doesn’t think about these things.  He doesn’t have to.  He never learned the key-in-the-fist trick when he worked late nights as a high school student.  He didn’t have to.

Until the cop-impersonator is caught, understand that this is what sexual terrorism looks like.  Making decisions on a daily basis so that you won’t get assaulted.  And know that women and girls disproportionately bear this burden as long as our culture remains the same.

For more, check out the Journal-Courier website.

About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • pagansister

    Wow! That is scary. Hopefully the cop impersonator will be caught yesterday! I too find it outrageous that the Violence Against Women Act was allowed to expire! I also am not happy that the Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire! Off topic, but my paternal grandfather owned and ran a printing press in Jacksonville. As I mentioned before, a good while ago, my father got his BA degree from Illinois College. Part payment was my Grandfather doing some printing for the College.

  • Hanan

    >Why else would women be about 14 times more likely than men to be sexually assaulted?

    What does this have to do with a society tolerating sexual assault? Lets say we passed a whole bunch of laws to punish criminals (which by definition occurs AFTER the fact), are you saying less women would be assaulted in relation to men? We can pass all the laws you want, but the percentage can remain the same. So it has nothing with a society tolerating it if more women are victims. Sorry to break this to you, but if sexual crime is going to occur (and it will) it will generally be against women much more then men.

  • http://OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com Y

    I have a grown son and a grown daughter. I divorced their father because of his gross disrespect of my body and my authority as a mother. I fought a losing battle against society that does not effectively teach boys how sacred their own bodies and seeds are and are taught fear and bravado rather than awe of the sacred ability to procreate and protect life.

    We must remember that all “Christian” religions were poisoned by being turned into military movements by The Roman Catholic church. In a militaristic society, the human body is nothing but a tool for conquest. In all the animal kingdom, it takes few males for procreation and guarding established territory. The excess males are done away with; in our human culture violence, prisons and wars take care of this.

    At the age of eight, my son came to me with betrayal in his eyes and voice to ask if I knew that when he reached the age of eighteen, he had to sign up to go to war. Is it any wonder that, no matter how much I reassured him that I would take him to Canada before I let him be drafted, he was in a hurry to procreate? Is it any wonder that he grew up ashamed that he wasn’t a mean alpha male in such a society? We teach our boys to be attack dogs and then wonder why they attack.

    Women, especially teachers, in a sexy Southern culture, flirted with him from the time he was in diapers. Until we stop putting pressure on our sons to become alpha males at very early ages, they will continue to practice their bravery on the most vulnerable in the animal kingdom, including human animals.

    My son, like his father, is a very loving father, with no respect for the human body’s sacredness.

    I taught my daughter to trust no man who offered to “help” her. She is very clear on who she allows to assist her and in defining the exact assistance she wants. She is a teacher of the year in a very underprivileged school, and has taught her girls to be strong, competent women within strong networks.

    False Christianity is the problem, not the answer.

  • Andrea

    I am a young female bagpiper in a bagpipe band. The second I asked how safe the area near our band’s practice space is for parking, my band mates all realized that unless they took steps to prevent it, I could, potentially, become a statistic. While on the one hand I feel protected and valued, I chafe with the necessity of always needing to walk to my car with another person or get a ride. I dream of a world where women can walk without fear, where people respect their bodies and their selves.


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