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Sexual assault rhetoric should be revisited
Last week, a man allegedly committing serial sexual assault in Dupont Circle was charged with a misdemeanor, specifically, “misdemeanor sexual abuse (with aggravating circumstances).” According to D.C. Official Code, his crime is punishable by jail time of “not more than 180 days,” and, in addition, a possible fine of not more than $1000. His repeated strategy was to ride his bike past women walking on the street, forcibly shoving them to the ground before groping them. Police caught him assaulting four women, but he confessed to harassing eight more women they didn’t know about. The media has dubbed the perpetrator “the Bicycle Groper.” This incident has revealed several flaws in the way we approach sexual assault.
Rather than thinking in terms of fines, we should incorporate rehabilitation services for convicted sexual assailants to deter them from committing the same crimes again. According to The Washington Post, the prescribed sentence for his crimes is less than that for robbing a vending machine. Chai Shenoy, a lawyer specializing in sexual assault who also runs a sexual assault awareness group called Collective Action for Safe Spaces, highlighted the key issues to the Post, “The problem is, it’s a misdemeanor. And that doesn’t take into account how incredibly traumatizing this is for the victim,” she said. “It’s not like having your wallet stolen—this stays with the victim the rest of her life.”
The most productive form of punishment would include some sort of behavioral rehabilitation. Sentences for serial sexual assault should include mandatory psychological evaluations and therapy to address the assaulter’s motivations.
The media’s nickname for this assaulter also ignores the gravity of this type of crime. “Bicycle Groper” is reminiscent of the “Georgetown Cuddler,” the nickname given to the criminal infamous for sneaking into Georgetown students’ rooms and sexually assaulting them. Both diminish the victim’s trauma.
The discourse surrounding sexual assault became a focal point of this election cycle after politicians on the Left and the Right disavowed Todd Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape.” Aside from Akin’s absurd pseudo-science—he said women’s bodies could prevent a pregnancy in instances of legitimate rape—what appalled feminists was the implication that some forms of sexual assault are, by comparison, illegitimate. Akin was met with a surge of national outrage. When Akin and Paul Ryan sponsored H.R.3, which stipulates that no public money be used to pay for abortions, feminists lampooned the bill’s attempt to redefine rape as “forcible rape.”
Attempts to diminish the impact of other, “non-forcible” rapes demeans victims’ experiences. Despite broad consensus to this effect, media coverage of serial sexual assault is often characterized by catchy phrases that make light of the trauma associated with assault.
We should take advantage of this moment when national attention is focused on sexual assault to reconsider the way we discuss these crimes.