3 Ways U.S. Politicians Have Dealt With Sexual Aggression and Sexism

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One out of every five women in the U.S. and one out of every seventy-one men have reported that they were raped during their lifetime, according to statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Sexual violence numbers are even higher, with one out of every twenty women and men (5.6 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively) saying they’d experienced sexually related assault other than rape in the twelve months leading up to the question. When you look at college campuses, the fact that 19 percent of undergraduate women faced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault since they began their undergrad education is astounding.

The United States has taken some strides in politics and at the policy level to help prevent, punish, and increase open reporting of sexual assault and rape this year. Three items of particular note took place worth acknowledging and discussing their significance.1. Sexual assault on campus, California

Let’s start with the most recent policy item. California’s state legislature passed a bill into law on Thursday called the “yes-means-yes” bill (as opposed to the usual “no means no” concept). Basically it requires one to establish permission rather than respond to refusal via “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” This means it weighs in on situations in which the individual has been drugged or was over-intoxicated. “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout the sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.”

The language is highly specific in the law, which has still to be signed by the state governor — something that is still uncertain. While the intent is good, there are still opponents who believe the language might create legal quandaries and messy cases on campuses all across the state.

A number of California colleges are on the U.S. Department of Education’s list of schools that are undergoing an investigation into their handling of rape and sexual assault cases. These include University of California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

2. Chuck Hagel’s directives

In May of 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke on sexual assault and how it’s dealt with in the military, adding six additional directives to the Department of Defense’s policy on prevention and aid.

This was likely at least in part a response to a report released at that time from the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office. The report showed that the total number of sexual assaults in 2013 reached 5,061, which constituted an approximately 50 percent increase from the 3,374 assaults in the year prior.

The report looked specifically at the 492 personnel reports filed within military services that described assaults that had taken place before joining the military. Hagel said at the time that these increases were possibly proof that “victims are growing more confident in our system,” and indeed increased reporting is a good sign, as is improved and continually evaluated systematic improvements within the military. 

3. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Though it may seem somewhat out of place, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) discussion of sexist commentary she dealt with in office was something of a step forward in politics. It’s a strong move toward improving the political atmosphere for women when the individual willingly speaks out about major problems within the system and with individuals.

Gillibrand wrote in her book, Off the Sidelines, about comments she had to deal with from fellow senators, such as “don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby,” or being warned by someone in the House of Representatives against getting “porky.” Still another said, “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.”

Unfortunately, more on the negative side, the response Gillibrand has received for her openness has not been entirely as positive and progressive as one could wish. One reporter, John Bresnahan, tweeted “I challenge this story. Sorry, I don’t believe it,” upon hearing Gillibrand’s accusations. It’s bad enough that such things take place, but when reporters such as Bresnahan offer critical commentary without sources or facts to back it up, The New York Times’s Jess McIntosh is right to call it a “knee jerk response that a woman who says something shitty happened to her must be lying.”

The discussion is a particularly important one because often Republicans get the bad rap for sexism. Gillibrand’s commentary acts as a reminder that both sides of the aisle, and generally all jobs, retain a gender bias that needs continued work to correct.

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