Sexual violence is too often depicted as spectacular, individualised, idiosyncratic, unique, exceptional and personal, and although it is, it is also systemic and structured by misogynist militarist and sports cultures. Sexual violence is endemic, and extraordinarily ordinary, everyday, everywhere and deeply inter-connected, webbed and intersectional with commoditised relations.
In its ordinary/everyday intimate forms, it is often ignored and silenced by too many and appears erased, as in natural and normalised and not horrific and punishing as it really is. There is a culture of sexual brutality and hatred that is hard to face, so it parades as a secret; both open and hidden at the same time.
As so many radically feminist women have done for the past 40-plus years, let me premise this: that sexual violence and rape is an intimate part of a structural political/power-filled system of masculinist hetero-patriarchal privilege. This connectivity explains the every-where-ness of the brutality towards women and girls that is implicated in other systems of unfairness of the 99 percent on this globe.
Predatory behaviour: sex harassment, and battery, and rape, and brutal torture and death are all of a piece. There is not a slippery slope here, but rather a slope that continually slides. I do not mean to equate different kinds of sexual violence, but I do want to connect them. The path to a solution to sexual brutality is in seeing the connections.
Gun culture intensifies the risks, but much sexual violence is done without a gun. No singular item is inclusive enough here to expose the kill factor of militarist/sports/commodity culture. There is the problem of 300 million firearms at loose in the US, but no one seems to be serious about getting rid of them.
Many women like guns and use guns – like the hundreds of thousands of females in the US military, or Nancy Lanza, mother of Adam, the shooter at Sandy Hook elementary school. She had grown up loving to shoot. Some women think that they need guns to protect them from the very violence that they fear daily. Messy it is.
Violence and sexual violence is increasing on the globe. The UN says that one out of three women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. This means that at least one billion women are being brutalised. It is unbelievable that this truth has been so evasive and still exists like an open secret.
South African model Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead on Valentine's Day and the day of One Billion Rising – by famous Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius. The sportscasters could not quite believe the story and were saddened for him. NBC's Andrea Mitchell repeatedly seemed dumbfounded, and then finally summed up the incident as related to the problem of guns.
Similar disbelief was part of the early story of OJ Simpson's murder of his wife Nicole even though domestic violence had a history in this case.
South Africa has the highest reported incidence of rape in the world and 2,500 women are murdered there each year. At a recent COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) meeting, Bernadette Muthien, the executive director of Engender, a sexual rights group in Cape Town, South Africa, reminded attendees that in South Africa a woman is killed by her male partner every six hours, a woman is raped every four minutes.
It is a country that began its horrific violence and violation in its colonial and apartheid system. But this is not to simply demonise and exceptionalise South Africa. Muthien cited the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International which both find that violence against women happens in every city and village in the world, on all six continents.
In a poem, Muthien shares her sense of collective grief at the continual brutality against women in her country. She calls the killing of Reeva Steenkamp a form of "gendercide" and condemns the "perpetrators and the morally blind" who spill the "blood of ordinary women and children".
She feels like a "spiritual cadaver" as she wonders at the perpetual spiral of violence. Muthien also informs me that women's groups were already galvanised around the recent brutal slaying and gang-rape of Annene Booysen although this was not covered by transnational media.
One billion bodies rising
Eve Ensler, who wrote the Vagina Monologues and empowered more than a generation of women and girls to love and protect their bodies, is also the originator of V-Day as a day to stand against sexual violence. She was at the helm of One Billion Rising that mobilised millions/a billion women across this planet to say yes to sexual rights and no to sexual violation.
Many of the women and girls who danced everywhere and embraced the powerfulness of their bodies to change this world have suffered abuse, rape and torture – as mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. Others put their bodies on the line against "imperialist plunders, corporate greed and political repression".
Women from well over 200 countries – Congo, India, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Canada, France, Bangladesh, Philippines, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, US – stood together in defiance of sexual brutality in all its forms.
Global peace is a multi-pronged agenda that requires its most intimate and violating aspect – sexual abuse and violation – to be eradicated. The massive demonstrations in India against the horrific raping of the physiotherapy student especially catalysed mass actions elsewhere for V-Day.
February 14 was a personally political day of action across the globe. Women, and some men, of every sort stood together across the differences that usually separate. These women crossed borders, and nations and tribes, and races and religions, and classes, and families, and established loyalties to stand together and dancefor a joy-filled existence free of rape.
Eve describes the extraordinary variety of V-Day actors: a queen of the carnival in Rio de Janeiro; ordinary women in Pakistan and Croatia, domestics and migrants and movie stars and house workers and doctors and nurses and CEOs and secretaries the world over; heads of state, leaders at the UN. There was every type and every kind of woman and person because sexual violence can violate any/everyone.
Eve and One Billion Rising make clear that rape can happen anywhere, to anyone. She says she is tired of keeping count of the numbers of the raped and tortured; of the tracking of each minute of each day and each week that girls are violated. It is time to raise our arms in defiance – "and step into the fire" – and "rise".
Linor Abargil, the Israeli "Miss World", 1998, has been fanning the flames for a while now. In a new film, Brave Miss World, the story of her rape at knife-point just two months before being crowned Miss World is powerfully told. She is a tirelessly compelling advocate for women who have suffered sexual violence so that they can find their own voice.
The political rising of February 14 makes a public statement that must be recognised. Instead of sensationalising rape and murder, each must be indicted as part of a culture of sex harassment, sex violation and sex commodification. It is a leap, but not an erroneous one to be reminded of the hundreds of thousands of war-rapes both historically and today in places like Rwanda and Congo, not to mention the "rape epidemic" in the US armed forces.
The problem is not simply OJ Simpson, or Oscar Pistorius. It is also the misogynist cultures that allow sports heroes their violent ways: basketball star Kobe Bryant, boxer Mike Tyson, Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely, football coach Jerry Sandusky. Similar though different are the continual sexual scandals of political leaders, including South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and even our own Bill Clinton.
And, although Dominique Strauss Kahn, former president of the International Monetary Fund, was a known sexual lecher to all who knew him, he was given free predatory reign. DSK had often been described as a "chimpanzee in heat".
When a Sojitel hotel maid in the Bronx charged him with rape, the claim was taken seriously, but then her credibility was undermined, and despite the evidence of sexual assault, the case fell apart. After much denial, DSK apologised for poor judgment and actually retorted that "he loves women".
The silencing of sexual assault remains a key aspect of its power. Silence is often the other side, or the underside of exposure, which leads me to Julianne Assange and WikiLeaks. Assange seems to have been given a pass by many – especially those of the so-called progressive Left – on the charges by two Swedish women against him of sexual rape.
Although WikiLeaks demands the transparency of political power and state secrets, it does so without extending the same expectation to issues of sexual power. Slavoj Zizek says that WikiLeaks is revolutionary because they make "unknowability" and "deniability" impossible by totalitarian regimes of power. How about exposing the totalitarian regime of sexual violation? The billion rising ask for transparency in this realm.
It is time to demand transparency and revelation and truth telling when it comes to the political reality of patriarchy and misogyny alongside the other hierarchies of power that punish. Silence is not acceptable.
A sexual class is not an abstract political class but an actual one. It is made up of huge variety of females in all colours, sizes, wealth, nations, religions, races and classes who face daily sexual violation. Put this power-filled reality in clear view.
Most people believe that epidemics must be stopped. Sexual violation is endemic, epidemic, and rampant in US prisons; in detentions centres for troubled youth; in the Catholic Church; in the bedrooms of too many homes; in school bathrooms; on subways and buses.
There is no one particular political party for/of sexual violation. Democrats do it. Republicans do it. Taliban do it. Priests and Rabbis and Imams do it. Leftists and progressives do it. Religious zealots do it.
Yet, it is not inevitable. That is why one billion people were in the streets on Valentine's Day. Although new forms of endless warfare – like drones – may allow too many to divert their eyes from the harm, the intimacy of sexual violence demands visibility.
Hopefully, the Republicans in the US House will have figured out that they cannot win their own war against women – and will instead decide to vote in favour of funding the "Violence Against Women's Act". If not, I am hoping for a huge rising; a huge noisy boisterous rising.
Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past 30 years. She writes in order to engage in political struggles for social justice across the globe. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York. Her most recent books with Zed Press, London include: The Audacity of Races and Genders (2009); Sexual Decoys, Gender, Race and War (2007); and Against Empire (2004).