There is something profoundly disturbing about realizing you’ve read so many personal accounts of rape and sexual violence, open letters to attackers, terrifying, gut-wrenching narratives that they seem to blur together, repeating tropes and messages.
Refusals to be silent and vows not to be shamed are often included—and these are important for victims to both share and read. It is nothing short of brave to come forward with these stories.
But Oxford University student Ione Wells went a step further in her letter to her assaulter in the Cherwell, the university newspaper.
Rather than solely admonish the perpetrator (who we know now is a 17-year-old who pled guilty to sexual assault on Monday) for what he did to her, Wells chastises him for damaging her community.
She describes how he attacked her as she walked from the subway station, how he “pushed me to my knees until my face bled,” and how he “tore my bra in half from the sheer force.”
Wells also describes how the sexual assault was thwarted: “You failed to have my body because all my neighbors and family came out, and you saw them face-to-face.”
She then explicitly frames his act of sexual violence as an attack not only on her, but on her community in the starkest and most powerful of terms:
“You did not just attack me that night. I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am a girlfriend, I am a pupil, I am a cousin, I am a niece, I am a neighbour, I am the employee who served everyone down the road coffee in the café under the railway. All the people who form those relations to me make up my community, and you assaulted every single one of them.”
Wells’s letter is going viral in the UK, but treating rape and sexual assault as crimes against communities is a notion that should make its way stateside.
Rape is a uniquely brutal crime. In a certain way, the sexual nature makes it a horrifyingly intimate attack that obscures its larger impact on a community.
Because it is so appallingly focused on the individual victim, we rarely look at rape and acts of sexual violence as an affront to a community.
Part of the problem is that rape and sexual assault are so often categorized as crimes against women. That’s disturbing for many reasons. Women are significantly more likely to be the victims of sexual violence, but men are certainly—and too often overlooked—victims, too.
According to a 2010 CDC report (PDF), 18.3 percent of women will be a victim of completed or attempted rape at some point during her lifetime, while 1.4 percent of men will be.
Regardless of the demographics of the specific victims, a community is not immune from the after-effects. A rape should shake a community from its slumber the way it would if a neighbor was mugged walking home or a store was looted.
It is an attack on the overall safety and security of the community as much as the individual—and that is a facet that is too often overlooked.
Only recently have we started to have mainstream discussions about “rape culture,” which does connect the act of rape to a larger net of communal responsibility.
Unfortunately, the phrase has become ubiquitous yet nebulous, and may ultimately detract from finding concrete ways to successfully reduce incidences of sexual assault.
In fact, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) critiqued the focus on “rape culture” in 2014 shortly after the White House initiated its task force on campus sexual assault.
RAINN stated, “There has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming ‘rape culture.’ Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”
Furthermore, a focus on “rape culture” has been more about holding communities accountable than examining how rape and sexual assault damage the security and bonds of communal life. We need to get out of the mindset that rape and sexual assault only damages the individual victim.
The UN has taken steps to acknowledge that rape is not an isolated crime but can be part of a larger tactic to terrify and destroy communities.
The international organization began tackling rape and sexual assault as a larger tactic of genocide and crimes against humanity when it prosecuted crimes related to former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
In so doing, the UN recognized the wide-reaching impact of sexual violence on entire networks of people in times of military conflict. “Rape committed during war is often intended to terrorize the population, break up families, destroy communities, and, in some instances, change the ethnic make-up of the next generation,” stated the UN’s Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide.
“Sexual violence in conflict needs to be treated as the war crime that it is,” said Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN chief’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. “It can no longer be treated as an unfortunate collateral damage of war.”
Nor can sexual violence be viewed exclusively as damaging to the individual victim rather than the larger community. That mindset not only ignores the reality of the crime, but diminishes the significance of it. It removes the impetus for a wider network of people to respond.
This obliviousness is all the more true with sexual assault. Not only are victims often silent (RAINN states 68 percent go unreported), but the crime itself is not always considered to be in the category of ills that plague a community, like theft, drug dealing, and murders. Instead, it is seen solely as an act against an individual.
In an era where connections between locals—our neighbors, teachers, shop owners, police—seem tenuous at best and nonexistent at worst, it can be easy to dampen our anger and our fear when crimes occur in our neighborhoods.
It takes the explosive storms of riots, as we have seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, to remind us of the notion of “communities,” but we shouldn’t have to be reminded of “communities” only when they are in peril.
The only silver lining from these devastating outbreaks of violence and looting is the resolve of people to defend, protect and nourish their communities for the future, in the face of unrest and mistrust.
You might say it is overly dramatic to compare or equate a single act of sexual violence with the destruction of urban riots.
But Wells’s letter ends on note of empowerment and defiance that echoes the response of those trying to restore calm and stability to Baltimore.
“I hope you think about community. Your community—even if you can’t see it around you every day,” she writes to her attacker. “It is there. It is everywhere. You underestimated mine. Or should I say ours? There are no boundaries to community; there are only exceptions, and you are one of them.”