By now you have probably seen at least one news article about a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found nearly one out of every five women has either been raped or the subject of an attempted rape in their lives. The report also found that one out of every four women has been beaten by an intimate partner and that one out of every six women has been stalked.
These figures are not terribly surprising to a lot of people, myself included. I’ve often said, half-jokingly but not really, that it seems like an abusive relationship is a rite of passage for many of the women I know. Sexual and physical violence, and the threat thereof, is woven into the daily fabric of life for many women (not to mention gay men and transgendered people).
You can call me alarmist, you can call me radical, but the statistics bear this out. My own experiences bear this out. After all, I am the one in five. I am the one in four. Those statistics aren’t just numbers. They describe my life.
So yes, I was not surprised by these numbers, but there was something that did catch my attention, located halfway down the New York Times article I read this morning:
A vast majority of women who said they had been victims of sexual violence, rape or stalking reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as did about one-third of the men.
Women who had experienced such violence were also more likely to report having asthma, diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome than women who had not. Both men and women who had been assaulted were more likely to report frequent headaches, chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, limitations on activity, and poor physical and mental health.
The article goes on to quote Lisa James, the director of health for Futures Without Violence, a non-profit group that advocates for an end to violence against women and girls:
“People who grow up with violence adopt coping strategies that can lead to poor health outcomes,” she said. “We know that women in abusive relationships are at increased risk for smoking, for example.”
I thought about my own life after reading these words. I thought about myself as a preteen, trying – and failing – to cope with the morass of sexual trauma I’d experienced as a child. I thought about how I slept fourteen hours a day and neglected my personal hygiene to the point that I ended up in the hospital with a burning kidney infection. I thought about how I missed so many days of sixth grade because I always felt terrible and tired. I had no idea how to be depressed, but I knew how to be sick.
I thought again about my life during my first marriage, how I was constantly plagued with stomach problems and how I had panic attacks on the regular. I thought about how I smoked and drank to cope, and how I always seemed to be coming down with a sinus infection or was battling a rasping cough. Yet I couldn’t stop, because it was all I had to help me through my days.
The times in my life when I have most struggled with my health have also been the times in my life when I have experienced the most pain as a result of sexual assault and violence. The connection in my life has been clear, and it appears as though the connection is there for many other people as well.
Yet with sexual and intimate violence reaching near-epidemic levels, and with such high costs extracted from the survivors, their loved ones and society as a whole, it is still astonishing to me to see that rape culture continues to thrive.
Take this post from Jessica at Women, Action & the Media, entitled “I’m sick of being sick of rape culture.” In it, she writes about a supposedly jokey article called “10 Ways to Fool a Sorority Girl Into Your Bed,” which essentially reads like a date-rapist’s how-to guide. Or check out this comparison between quotes from British lad magazines and statements from convicted rapists, and how most people can’t tell the difference.
Our health is one of the most precious things we have, the foundation upon which all else is built. The fact that survivors are often left dealing with health problems in the wake of their assaults is yet another reason why we need to be vigilant in fighting back against a culture that gives cover to rapists and abusers.