The epidemic of sexual abuse

Recent news coverage has been dominated by reports of sexual harassment and abuse committed by famous and powerful men. Nearly every day another politician or media personality is accused of inappropriate and criminal behavior. It feels like a dam has opened and victims are pouring out their stories.

Of course, sexual misconduct is not limited to the rich and famous. It is far more common than most people are aware of or want to believe. Many victims never report sexual harassment or abuse, often because they are embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid and feel they are alone in their suffering. Not true.

According to statistics compiled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 88 percent of women say they have been sexually harassed, mostly in the workplace. In addition, 27 percent of women have experienced harassment from a colleague and 17 percent have experienced harassment from a superior. More than 12 percent of women have received threats of termination if they did not comply with the sexual demands of the harasser. About 81 percent of women experience harassment in verbal form, with the rest reporting unwanted physical contacts. At least one of three women ages 18 to 34 has been sexually harassed or assaulted at work.

Sexual harassment and abuse affects women of all ages, but violent abuse is particularly pervasive among young women. Female teenagers are the most likely to be sexually abused, and cultural, racial and economic factors do not seem to have an effect on the likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual abuse.

According to reports compiled by the Center for Disease Control:

— Twenty females are victims of physical and/or sexual violence by a partner every minute in the US.

— Half of women are sexually abused in their lifetime.

— Seventy-nine percent of female rape victims report that the rape occurred before age 25, and 42.2 percent of female rape victims were first raped before age 18.

— Eighty-six percent of female rape victims know their abuser as an intimate partner, family member, or acquaintance.

— Teenagers are the victims in 51 percent of all reported sexual abuse.

— Teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 are 3.5 times more likely than the general public to be victims of sexual abuse.

— Female victims of teen sexual abuse while in grades ninth through 12th are more likely than others to experience eating disorders, suicidal behavior, pregnancy and risky sexual behaviors.

— About 32,000 pregnancies are the result of rape each year in the United States.

Females are not the only victims. Of the reports of workplace harassment received by the EEOC, 21 percent of the victims were men. The CDC reports that 20 percent of men are sexually abused in their lifetime. Victims of sexual abuse often become abusers themselves, and about 23 percent of all sexual offenders are under the age of 18. While reports of female abusers are becoming more common, most sexual abuse and harassment is committed by men and boys.

That is a reason that the trend of politicizing these reports of harassment and abuse is so frustrating. Sexual misconduct is not a Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal issue. It is an issue of human decency and respect. Abusers do not rape, molest, and mistreat victims because they are members of a particular political party. They commit these horrible acts because they want to control, dominate, and degrade their victims. It is about power far more than sex.

As a woman, much of my disappointment about the 2016 presidential election was the election of a man who has been accused of sexual harassment, molestation, or rape by nearly 20 females, and who often boasted about committing the acts of which he is accused. It was very painful to know that nearly 63 million Americans basically said that mistreating and sexually abusing females is acceptable.

I expect that these revelations of abuse will continue to become public as more women and men gain the courage to share their experiences of harassment and abuse. Perhaps the time has finally come when this difficult and painful subject will be brought out into the open and no longer covered up, excused, and ignored. Tuesday’s senatorial election in Alabama will hopefully be an omen of change.

If you are a man, I urge you to talk to the women in your life about this subject. Encourage your wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers to talk about their own experiences with harassment and abuse. Ask yourself if you have ever committed a similar act against a woman.

To women, keep telling your stories. Support and encourage other women who do the same. The only way to end sexual abuse and harassment is to stand up against it, and it will take all of us together to make it safer for girls and women in the future than it has been thus far.

Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.

Patsy Sheppard, a St. Pauls resident, is a retired educator and active locally in the Democratic Party.