Sexual Violence is a Hate Crime

By Jocelyn Jacoby, President’s Office Intern

I strongly believe violence against women, and particularly sexual violence, is a hate crime – and that may surprise people, even feminists.

On October 2, 2006 a man walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, County Pennsylvania and shot ten young girls. Charles Carl Roberts IV was 32 years old and apparently wanted to enact revenge against female victims because of an issue in his past. He walked in with three guns, two knives, and 600 rounds of ammunition. When he arrived at the school in the morning, he separated the boys and girls—children ages six to 13and then allowed the boys to leave. He then lined the girls against a blackboard,bound their feet with wire tires and plastic handcuffs, and then shot them execution style. Five little girls were killed: Lena Miller, 7; Mary Liz Miller, 8; Naomi Ebersol, 7; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12; and Marian Fisher, 13.

This is one of the most notorious, and horrific gender-based hate crimes, but it is not an isolated incident. While there are many large-scale gender-based murders, such as the Isle Vista shooting in 2014, most acts of violence against women are on the interpersonal level and are thus less likely to be viewed as a hate crime.

Hate crimes are defined as “crime, most commonly violence, motivated by prejudice, bias or hatred towards a particular group of which the victim is presumed to be a member.” Hate crimes are considered especially harmful because the perpetrator often justifies their violence based on societal prejudice and the act further normalizes violence against the subject. There is a heightened psychological trauma produced by a hate crime that affects an entire community, with members aware that at any time, they too may be targets for crime solely based on innate characteristics.

Dr. Saucier from Kansas State University and his colleagues’ found that a crime committed against a minority group (African-Americans, Asian-American, Latinos, Jews, or gay men) was more likely to be considered a hate crime than crimes against women. As a result, crimes against minority groups ares more likely to receive a heavier sentence than crimes targeting women. In order for people to conceptualize violence against women as a hate crime, they need to rely on a stereotypical scenario that is based on a specific victim type, severity of assault, assault location, and on victim/perpetrator relationship. For example, a woman raped by multiple strangers after leaving a local NOW meeting is much more likely to be classified as a hate crime than the more common occurrence of a student getting sexually assaulted by a friend at a college party.

This view is not held by just the general population, but by police officers and prosecutors who are responsible for applying the law as well. Academic researchers Boyd, Berk, and Hamner found that police officers believe a hate crime against a woman is a rare violent attack; they define hate crimes as attacks that are accompanied by slurs, often perpetrated by known hate groups and not someone known to the victim/survivor. Feminist social workers and scholars, McPhail and DiNitto, interviewed prosecutors in Texas to find out their thoughts on the inclusion of gender in the hate crime statute. Of those interviewed, many had no idea gender was includedand, while embarrassed by the fact, they were nevertheless annoyed by its inclusion.

Some quotes from the interviews highlight the reactions of attorneys whose job it is prosecute gender-based hate crimes:

  • “Bias against gender? Maybe there are some cases where it would play a part, but it is kind of hard for me to imagine a factual situation where that would play a part. I never did understand what they even meant by that. Race is the big thing, sexual preference is the second one, and national origin. They are the ones that happen. Gender, I never could figure that (White, male, elected district attorney).”
  • “BS, political BS (White male, elected district attorney).”
  • “A hate crime, did they commit it just because the person was a woman? No, my understanding as a rule, I don’t know, and each of these cases is different, but rape, take that, crime of violence, all crimes to me are crimes of hate. If it is a hate crime under the statutory definition, it would have to meet the guidelines, was it committed because it was a woman? Was that the motivational factor behind it? Probably are not going to rape a man if you are so inclined, but its more a crime against, it’s a power crime, a crime of violence, it’s an assault case, and you are always going to have a victim be a man or a woman, unless it’s a property crime, but you know it doesn’t mean that is why it was committed. (White, female, assistant district attorney).”
  • “The guy who did that, murdered these young girls, he was a serial rapist. His thing was control. He was a nobody and he wanted . . . he was a somebody to these girls in his mind and he could control them. Now was that an underlying hatred of women? Maybe, perhaps, I don’t know. What really came out was the control. (White, male, elected district attorney).”
  • “We just did a murder case, a guy shot his common-law wife. He . . . had written a lot . . . to do with violence and violence against women. But really, I think it came down to he killed her because she got a job, she was trying to move away, get away from him. They had a long-term relationship and he couldn’t take losing her. And when you have these emotional man-woman, I hate to use the word “love” in that context. Did that violence against her serve gender purposes? I think it was violence against her. Even though we had a lot of imagery about the violence toward women, this was personal. (White male, elected district attorney).”
  • “If you got somebody, that, is that because of gender or it’s because he’s a total jerk who does that to people who are weaker than he is and that he can control? Control is because, let’s face it, he is a wuss, and he doesn’t have anything going for him in his life, and this is the way, because it certainly is not about sex, that he, domination, I don’t know. Does he really hate women or is this just the only way he can control something in his life? I don’t know. (White, female, assistant district attorney).”

These reactions by local law enforcement underscore the need for violence against women, particularly sexual violence, to be classified as a hate crime.

In the 1990s, the push to include gender in hate crimes was brought to the mainstream by organizations like NOW. Feminists argue that sexual violence is a tool to sustain the systematic subordination of women within society. Chen, a feminist legal scholar, finds that men who commit gender-bias crimes seek to maintain power and dominance over women through sexual terrorism, reinforcing socially constructed views about the nature of men and women, vent their personal frustrations, exert superior status in comparison to other men, or punish women who choose to compete in areas traditionally reserved for men.  Similar to other hate crimes, women are often called names during assaults, they are targeted because of their membership to a group, and other women in the community will fear for their own safety when another woman is assaulted.

Opponents of including violence against women as a hate crime cite that many women know their actor, that violence against women is too prevalent, and that special laws addressing it already exist. Stranger rapes, fraternity gang rapes, and clear sensationalist examples are more likely to be viewed as a hate crime and obscure the fact that the large majority of survivors know their perpetrator. Domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder of women are much more likely to be by an intimate partner or family member. Therefore, the inclusion of interchangeability, otherwise known as “the stranger factor,” in the perception of hate crime actually demonstrates how successful the normalization of violence against women has been. If a non-stranger commits a race-based hate crime, the relationship between the victim and offender makes the crime seem even more heinous, because the shared community implied in social familiarity is viciously shattered. But when the perpetrator is a neighbor, coworker, or partner, the violence against women is no longer considered a hate crime. The argument that violence against women is not rare enough to be based on hate is also an argument for why we need to need to re-frame how we address violence against women. Other legislation addressing violence against women does not capture the degree of hatred, hostility, or disrespect for all women present in these acts affects the larger community.

Including gender in hate crimes legislation can not only extend sentencing for perpetrators of violence against women and help provide more resources and education to law enforcement agencies, it also has symbolic significance. It makes it so that sexual violence is no longer seen as a personal matter, driven by lust, but instead it is seen as a symptom of a larger societal problem. Including gender within hate crime legislation frames sexual violence as an act of prejudice used against women to oppress, subordinate and control them. This reorientation of causation helps diminish the perceived ‘responsibility’ of victims commonly known as victim-blamingby shifting emphasis on the offender’s wrongful, immoral and discriminatory conduct. It also shows that this is something the government, and those in power, are taking seriously and do not endorse, which is a major change when it comes to the acceptance or even encouragement of violence against women by governments.

Despite the inclusion of gender on the federal level since 1993, only twenty-four states and Washington, D.C. statutes include the term “gender” or “sex.” However, for any of these statutes to be effective people need to understand why gender is a hate crime and begin to prosecute it as such. Otherwise, the number of gender-based hate crimes reported will remain at dismally low levels.

Start having this conversation with your friends and family.  Although you may initially be met with resistance, you can  logically refute their points and help to change the conversation on violence against women, particularly sexual violence.

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