A 365 Day-a-Year Problem

A month of sexual assault awareness is good, but what women really need is year-round action.

If you are reading this, chances are you know that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. You are probably also mindful of the startling statistics: rape harms one in five women in America and criminal sexual assault is reported three to four times per day in the city of Chicago -- not to mention the hundreds of occurrences that go unreported. With these odds, it is very likely you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual violence in her lifetime.

Let's be clear -- I fully agree with the need for awareness months. Our community can only benefit from the reminder of topics that can be hard to face. This becomes increasingly true as we see sexual violence becoming engrained within the undercurrent of our every-day lives and in popular culture. Or, as Yesenia Romo, director or sexual violence and support services at YWCA Metropolitan Chicago succinctly puts it, "the sexual exploitation of women has evolved from an overt act, to an insidious and muted message reinforced by popular culture. Popular culture has provided an avenue to make sexual exploitation of women both alluring and acceptable."

A recent example is Belvedere Vodka's attempt to create viral buzz by posting a new ad. The image on the ad featured a woman in distress as she struggles to get out of a man's arms. The copy read, "Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly."

The backlash to this ad and the timing of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, indeed offers us an opportunity to unite and recognize the real threat of sexual violence that every woman faces. We also have a chance to insert the perspectives of men in the conversation. Still, we cannot allow our fight to end violence against women be carried on the shoulders of brief surges of public backlash and outrage.

Case in point: take a look at the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The bill, which garnered broad bipartisan support in 1994, provides essential federal funding to states and local communities for rape crisis centers and brings prosecutors of sexual crimes to justice. The third reauthorization of the bill began like the others before it: widely uncontroversial. But now, some conservative lawmakers have issues with expansions in the bill, including the direction of services to same-sex couples and battered illegal immigrants. In my view, these are all necessary changes that evolve with the growing needs of underserved populations. Unfortunately, many of our public leaders don't see it that way and we once again find ourselves playing defense on battles we should have already won.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month indeed affords us a unique opportunity to shine a light on the violence that many women and girls face. But, I call on both women and men to do more. We all know that sexual assault is a year-long, 365 day-a-year issue. If we want to truly end this violence, we need year-long attention and action to keep women and girls safe, and to make sure those who commit or encourage sexual assault are held accountable.