This post, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series of posts that we call Nicola’s Got Nerve. You may remember Nicola from this incident caught on camera which was viewed by more than 1.5 million people and which sparked outrage from all corners of the globe, bringing street harassment to the forefront of women’s rights issues. We admire’s Nicola’s ability to turn a traumatic event into focused action through writing and activism, and we think you will too.
Let’s consider this word in all its power for a moment, not only by looking at the first Merriam-Webster definition, “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse,” but by another entry, which terms it as an “intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force.” The first one underscores the physicality of the act, but the second one gets to the heart of both definitions, with the word destructive. I think most people wouldn’t hesitate to agree that sexually abusing another person is a deeply abusive and destructive act; but if this is really the consensus of our society, why then the confusion in the court system today?
Recently, the New York State Court of Appeals dealt a real victory to what law enforcement terms, “subway grinders,” by allowing another abuser, Jason Mack, to get off almost scott-free for his masturbating against a 14-year-old girl on a packed subway car in 2002. The Court of Appeals ruled that the perpetrator could not be charged with a felony as the action itself wasn’t deemed “violent.” Because the amount of physical pressure applied to another person’s body during a sexually abusive act like rubbing or fondling is “soft,” or “gentle,” does that mean that it isn’t a violent act? This justification is incredible, especially to anyone who has ever been the target of such abusive behavior. In fact, what Mack and others like him have done can actually be considered violent on more than one level: Physically: Doing this to someone on a crowded train, bus, etc. without another’s consent makes the action possible in the first place, especially if one cannot move away from the abuser. Emotionally: Whether the victim knows what is happening at the moment of the abuse, or when she sees her stained clothing in the aftermath. And finally, spiritually: Most targets of sexual violence do not feel comfortable coming forward and speaking about the experience, either to law enforcement or even their own families. Doing so can bring stigma and shame which in many instances, a woman or girl can carry with her the rest of her life, with serious effects to her self-esteem. To argue against any of these known facts is to turn away from the victim’s experience without empathy.
By international human rights standards, violence against women not only comprises obvious behaviors such as battering, but also includes acts of sexual abuse, whether perpetrated behind closed doors or inflicted out on the street. Why then, at the state level, are we once again parsing words? We, as a culture, continue to dance around the fact that sexual abuse, in the forms of street harassment, and most virulently, unwanted sexual contact with another individual, is at the core a deeply rage-filled, anti-social act designed either consciously or unconsciously to strip the target of dignity, power, and worth as another human being. To use someone like an object, in an abusive manner, is the very portrait of violence. And I believe that to ignore the fact that the vast majority of offenders are men, and that the victims of these crimes are women, points out the glaring sex bias in the court system. If the Court of Appeals has effectively taken the teeth out of prosecuting a sex abuser, what hope does society have to send a message to avert these traumatic situations in the future?
Violence. We, as Americans, have got to expand our understanding of this word to encompass the full definition of it, if we want to truly say that our great, shining society does not, in fact, condone violence against women.
The world is watching.