Friday, November 6, 2009

Op-Ed from the Plain Dealer's Forum section Today

November 5, 2009
To the Editor,

Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is extremely saddened and outraged by the tragic and violent deaths of so many women discovered on convicted rapist Anthony Sowell’s property in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. We recognize the tremendous suffering that so many are experiencing, especially those who survived being raped by Sowell and the families of women who are missing. This gruesome incident raises some critical questions and issues about violence against women that must be part of the local and national dialogue surrounding this case.

Where was the public outcry when that many women became missing in and around one inner-city neighborhood? How did this go virtually unnoticed until recently? How many more women are currently missing in our city? This case demonstrates that a segment of our population—women who are poor, black, drug-addicted and/or mentally ill—are invisible. As we grieve as a community about the loss of so many women we need to confront the reality that race and economic class are key factors directly linked to their tragic deaths.

And central to our conversations must be the fact that Sowell’s violent acts were targeted against a specific gender, women. Many recent murder cases in Cleveland have been targeted at women and were committed by men that the victims knew. Nearly all involve domestic and/or sexual violence – crimes that impact women far more proportionately than men. One in six women in the United States will be a victim of a completed or attempted rape in her lifetime. Sexual and intimate partner violence against girls and women continues at epidemic levels in our society.

Despite its prevalence, most rapes are never reported to police. The number one reason rape survivors do not report is fear - fear of not being believed, fear of retribution by the perpetrator, fear of police. This is a result of a culture where victims are often blamed for their attack, for doing drugs or being somewhere or with someone they should not. They may have had a previous negative experience with law enforcement or may not be aware of resources that are available to support them.

As appears to have happened in the Sowell case, more than 2/3 of survivors are raped by someone they know. It seems that Sowell formed a casual relationship with women before he attacked them, even convincing them to enter his home. Perpetrators often get a victim to trust or feel safe around him before he rapes. The more a victim knows the perpetrator, the harder it is for her to report, and the harder it is for others to believe her. Perpetrators understand this dynamic and leverage it.

How should we respond, as individuals and as a community, to the tragic and violent acts committed against women by Anthony Sowell?

We need to believe, support and respond to all survivors of sexual violence regardless of race, gender, class and orientation. A survivor’s “lifestyle” should never enter the conversation. We need to create a climate where all survivors’ voices will be heard and sexual and gender violence will not be tolerated.

We need to approach rape prevention in a comprehensive manner. In addition to monitoring where sex offenders live, we need to support large-scale primary prevention efforts that can shift male culture and social norms away from perpetration.

We need to advocate on the local, state and federal levels for more support for rape crisis centers and first responders like police. According to the 2008 FBI Uniform Crime Report, there was an average of 4 rapes reported every week in the City of Cleveland alone. Our Center’s hotline gets 8 calls a day and statistics show that 11% of Cuyahoga County’s residents are survivors of rape. Organizations that address and respond to sexual and intimate partner violence are overwhelmed and need more resources.

Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is deeply distressed by this violence. We seek to support the survivors of this trauma and the Mount Pleasant community. We recognize this story is extremely painful to digest, particularly for those who may have had a similar attack. We encourage anyone in need to contact the Center’s 24-hour hotline for information and support, 216-619-6192.

Megan O’Bryan is CEO Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.

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