|I planned to write my editorial about the special report in this issue on the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and the petition we want you to sign and distribute to demand action. But then, just days before this column was due, on a Sunday afternoon in New York City's Central Park, more than 40 women were attacked.
The women--tourists and locals, some teenagers, others adults, some alone, others with female friends or male companions--were surrounded by groups of men who heckled, restrained, sexually molested, robbed, and beat them. And in one case, a woman was stripped naked while her husband was restrained and forced to watch. The predators cheered each other on, while bystanders videotaped several of the incidents and countless other folks watched and made no effort to intercede. It happened the same day that a major parade celebrating Puerto Rican pride was being held in the area, and the police were out in force. And yet, according to several people, including a number of the victims, the police failed to respond to their pleas for help, or protect other women from being assaulted.
As fate would have it, these attacks also happened on the very weekend when women from around the world had just finished meeting at the United Nations. That gathering was called to assess the progress made since the historic U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and to press governments to adhere to the recommendations and resolutions that came out of that event, to demand new laws and that unjust laws be changed. No surprise that violence against women was one of the main areas of concern.
As if we could forget that we live in a world where the rule of law does not universally apply to women and where nations routinely cloak men's violence toward women under the mantle of custom or religion, calling them acts of honor, duty, or love. Or that I, like most of you reading this, live in a country where men who kill their wives or girlfriends are routinely described as being "distraught," their murderous acts detailed under headlines that say things like "Love Gone Awry"--as if love had anything to do with it. If caught, these killers usually plead insanity, talk about being "pushed over the edge" and all too often are treated less harshly than the person who murders a stranger. One in six U.S. women has experienced either rape or attempted rape at some point in her life. Women are assaulted--not because the urge to rape is inherent to men's nature, but because of socialization. In this nation, women and girls are routinely stalked, the sexual harassment of girls in middle and junior high schools by their male peers has become all too common, and far more often than folks would like to admit, the sexual predation begins in the home. Yet women's suppressed memories of childhood abuse are labeled false, and people are deluded into thinking that incest is rare, that harassment is just adolescent flirtation, and that the mere fact of being female makes one a target for violence and intimidation. And then there are the officials who claim that these are simply aberrant acts--no pattern here.
How seriously does this society take violence against women? Ask the prosecutors who decide that some women aren't worthy of justice and the juries that buy into those tired patriarchal excuses for men's violence toward women. Ask the music lovers who attended the Woodstock festival last year in upstate New York and chose to be voyeurs when rape became part of the public revelry. Ask the moviemakers who regularly incite the violence done to women. Ask the schoolboys who in poll after poll state that if they spend a certain amount of money on a date, girls are obligated to provide sex. Ask the police officers who failed to respond to a female victim's cry for help and the bystanders who watched but did nothing. Ask those males who catcalled, threw water, groped and pawed and assaulted those women in the park, and the others who cheered them on. Ask the women who were targeted on that hot spring day.