Statistics on rape and sexual assault in America are an appalling arithmetic.
- "approximately 50 percent of college women have been sexually assaulted, and 27 percent have experienced rape or attempted rape."
- "1 of 6 U.S. Women and 1 of 33 U.S. men has experienced an attempted or completed rape as a child and/or adult."
- Surveys suggest at least 1/3 of US women in the military has been raped during her service.
In Western countries, statistics like these are more readily available than in the developing world, yet even here estimates of abuse are grossly under reported. It is undoubtedly worse in places where women and vulnerable children have even less protection, but to our lasting shame and great discredit, there are something on the order of 39 million survivors of child sexual abuse living in America.
I do not exaggerate when I say that virtually every woman I have ever been close to has had something horrible happen to her along these lines. I have come to expect that when someone I love starts sharing her past with me, sexual assault has been part of her experience as a child or young woman. This is true of close family members as well as lovers and dear friends. In my experience, such trauma constitutes a much greater percentage than those terrible numbers listed above.
I have two very powerful and contrasting responses to this reality. One is rage: a primal, murderous anger that has roots far deeper than just some hardwired response of the protective male. Those who prey on the vulnerable and have deeply hurt the ones I love, even if many decades ago, get no pity or compassion from me. I am not a pacifist. I understand, and fear, what it would be like to seek vengeance and retribution coming from a place of such righteous rage. I understand that I could do violence in return, and savagely, if driven by this blind, unchecked passion.
The other is humility. These injuries were not suffered by me, and in many cases happened long in the past (in one case well before my birth). The strong, vulnerable women in my life who have endured sexual assault continue to live their lives, define themselves in terms that do not imprison them in the perpetual reliving of these traumas. In Namibia, I learned a fundamental truth about from a woman who opened herself and her past to me about reconciliation, which was the official policy post-apartheid in that nation, and meant that torturers and rapists lived in the same vicinity as their victims. She told me that one does not forget, but must live, and the only way to live is to reconcile and move forward. Vengeance and victim-hood do not set you free. I continue to learn this lesson from women I love, though I find it hard to reconcile for myself.
It is not for me to be the avenger. It is not for me to stir up the old pain when it is revealed to me and I experience fresh emotions. I vowed long ago to be a good man, to be a counterpoint to the sexual violence that too many men inflict. I am a tender and compassionate lover. I am a good listener. I struggle because I want to fix what may have already healed, or may not be in my power to set right. I still feel anger on their behalf, and I strive to channel it into better behavior.
And I am also the father of a 10-year-old daughter, not yet damaged. Heaven help the one who makes her another statistic. And heaven help us all, because even if the law of averages puts her in the path of someone who does something unforgivable, she will need the strength that comes from her own, dear self, and nothing but compassion and love from her father and family and friends. There is no place in that equation for extra-legal retribution, though I know the place where that would come from, in me, if I ever let it free. There is no "honor" to avenge here, or in vengeance. There is healing to be done. And we must, unequivocally, as a cultural imperative, refuse to tolerate a culture of rape, for how else can one explain the brutal numbers of good people violated, of strong people made vulnerable, and especially those who should never be left in a place of sexual vulnerability?
"Few are guilty, but all are responsible." - Abraham Joshua Heschel