The Trump administration’s recent decision to rescind President Obama’s federal guidance protecting trans students has been applauded by many conservatives who argue it guarantees the safety of women and girls.
For instance, last spring, after North Carolina suffered backlash for enacting HB2, a law preventing transgender students from using a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said: "If our action in keeping men out of women's bathrooms and showers protected the life of just one child or one woman from being molested or assaulted, then it was worth it."
Putting aside the fact that there are no spikes in sex crimes when transgender people can pee where they want, there are in fact much more productive ways to curb the very real and pervasive issue of female sexual assault (something both Republicans and Democrats can agree on, huzzah!). Since the current administration seems so interested in the issue (could have been useful during the campaign, but it’s cool!), here are some ways local and federal government can get involved positively.
1) Investigate college campus rape
Women are at extremely high risk for sexual assault while they are in college. One in five will be a victim of sexual assault or rape at some point, and many, if not most, of these crimes on campus go unreported. In fact, a whopping 91 percent of college campuses reported zero sexual assaults in 2014.
Mandating that universities properly address sexual assault claims might be a great way to begin making women safer. Given that one study showed one in three male college students confessed they would have “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if ‘‘nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences," it may be time to send the message that criminals will be prosecuted. Given that Donald Trump branded himself the “law and order candidate,” ensuring that rape is properly prosecuted could be a great way to follow through on that promise.
2) Fight for appropriate sentences for rapists
During the 12 measly weeks that Brock Turner was in jail for sexually assaulting a woman behind a dumpster, an estimated 75,000 women were raped. And despite that astoundingly short sentence, at least he went to jail — many rapists never do. The judge’s reasoning for the abbreviated sentence? He claimed anything longer would have had a “severe impact” on Turner’s life (because being sexually assaulted doesn’t?). If the judicial system allocated appropriate sentences for sex crimes and we had fewer examples of rapists escaping sentences, it could encourage more women to report. In fact, when women see assault accusations be taken seriously, as was the case during the presidential election, it increases the calls to sexual assault hotlines.
3) Actually test rape kits
There are currently an estimated 400,000 untested rape kits across the country — that’s a backlog of evidence for thousands of rape and sexual assault cases collecting dust, as perpetrators go free. This problem, however, can be tackled. In 2015, the Department of Justice recognized the pressing nature of the issue and allocated $41 million to try to solve it.
This could be also become a priority for the current administration’s DOJ, especially since rape has a high recidivism rate. Rapists who aren’t caught often rape again, but testing rape kits and investigating these cases could potentially prevent future assaults from happening by punishing offenders for their crimes. For instance, one investigation of 4,000 untested rape kits in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, this year found that out of the “243 kits studied, 51 percent were linked to serial offenders.” Since the Trump administration is dedicated to supporting law enforcement, giving them the appropriate resources to investigate untested rape kits is a great way to start.
4) Teach kids about consent
If we truly want to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and counter the forces that lead to it, we need to target people when they’re young. According to data collected through online surveys across 15 states by researchers at the University of Florida, only 16 percent of the information that children possess about sexual assault comes from parents or schools, which means they are gathering their information from other sources, such as the media, their peers, or the internet.
Since the Republican Party has enshrined its commitment to restricting porn in its platform, perhaps providing an alternative to it — such as age-appropriate education about consent — would be a good place to start. For instance, according to data reported by the Guttmacher Institute, a minority of boys ages 15 to 19 had learned how to say no to sex through a sex ed class before their first sexual encounter. This means they are becoming sexually active before they have the appropriate tools to understand how consent is given. Comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education is also a more effective way to lower teen pregnancy rates, so it’s really a win-win.
5) Stop teaching men it’s okay to hurt women
Attitudes around sexual assault need to shift for a change in behavior to happen. Many men simply don’t understand what sexual assault looks like, and one of them may or may not be the president of the United States. In the aftermath of the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape where Trump could be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women, when confronted about whether grabbing women by the genitals was assault, he dodged the question — four times. He labeled it “locker room talk” while his wife Melania called it “boy talk.”
But should men be allowed to act like boys? Shouldn’t boys be taught to be better men? Men, unfortunately, are still often taught to bond with other men over sexist rhetoric. And when someone as powerful as Trump sets an example, they follow it. For example, soon after the lewd tape was released, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported multiple instances of men threatening to assault women and borrowing Trump’s exact language. Whether they are young men, grown men, or the leader of the free world, they should all be held to a higher standard.
6) Include violence against trans women in the definition of violence against women
Trans people are more likely to be victims of crimes in bathrooms than they are to be responsible for them. In fact one study from UCLA’s Williams Institute found that a whopping 70 percent of trans individuals have experienced some sort of harassment inside a bathroom.
A harrowing 41 percent of transgender youth have attempted suicide — a rate 10 times higher than the general population. Reducing any protections of such a vulnerable community could have devastating consequences on a group that is already disproportionately marginalized. As Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & AIDS Project, explained to me, “Hundreds of women’s groups, sexual assault prevention organizations, and domestic violence prevention organizations have come forward to make clear that discrimination against trans individuals harms all women and all survivors of violence.”
Focusing on the safety of cisgender (non-transgender) women obfuscates the need to protect all women, regardless of their gender identity. According to an analysis conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, “transgender women in the United States face 4.3 times the risk of becoming homicide victims than the general population of women.” Given how alarmingly high the risk is for trans women, any law that places them at further risk should be perceived as staunchly anti-woman.
7) Empower people to actually talk about assault
Even with how widespread sexual assault is, it remains a taboo subject. The trauma of being a survivor is obviously a huge burden to carry, but one that victims shouldn’t be forced to bear alone or feel ashamed of. A paper from Behavior and Social Issues showed that the “label assigned to a given act of sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault) can have a notable impact on perceptions of the incident and the role of the individuals involved.” In their survey, the researchers found that “participants who labeled the event as a rape were less likely to assign responsibility for the assault to the victim.” The way we talk about these crimes matters, and giving the appropriate name or label to what a woman has experienced helps us understand these issues more deeply and can make that conversation more productive and useful.
We can be concerned with the safety of trans children and the safety of women. They are not mutually exclusive. When we take a more holistic approach to lawmaking, it becomes clear that a policy that appears to make one community safer at the expense of another is simply not an effective policy. “No one is safer when transgender kids are expelled from the restrooms that their peers use,” Strangio argued. “No one is safer when a school refuses to acknowledge the core humanity of any student.”