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Rape is a social justice issue

Op-ed: Rape is a social justice issue that affects everyone, not a special interest issue.

Editor's note: This op-ed has been updated to reflect new date for display of the Monument Quilt. 

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I am told that I am broken. That I need to go heal, to get therapy and to work — for years, perhaps — to put my broken self back together. That message makes me incredibly angry. I am not what is broken. What is broken is the culture and the circumstances that created my abuse.

What is broken is that when I was 9 years old, I didn't have words for what was happening to me because adults in this country are too uncomfortable to talk to children about sexual violence.

What is broken is that as a queer survivor, my sexuality is constantly pathologized to the point that health professionals have told me that I just need to get over my fear of men.

What is broken is that organizations intended to help survivors treat us like we are too fragile to know what we need.

Rape is not a special interest issue that affects a few people, rape is a social justice problem that affects everyone. Rape is not irrelevant to other struggles for equality, but rather foundational to how systems of oppression in the U.S. — including systemic racism, ableism, sexism and homophobia — were created and how they persist today.

Wednesday at 6 p.m., 100 survivors are gathering for a free and public town hall at the University of Baltimore Business Center. This event will build political voice and power for survivors, so that we can affect the systems that so deeply impact our lives.

And on Sunday, some of the key candidates for Baltimore mayor — including Catherine Pugh, Sheila Dixon and Elizabeth Embry — are scheduled to speak during a display of the Monument Quilt about what their administrations would do to support survivors and prevent rape and abuse. The quilt, stitched together with more than 1,000 stories from survivors of sexual and domestic violence imprinted on red fabric, will blanket North Avenue between Charles and Howard streets from noon to 5 p.m. (The event was previously scheduled for Saturday, but was moved to Sunday, April 10th).

It builds a new culture where survivors are publicly supported, not shamed. Public shame isolates survivors. Isolated, we cannot come together, we cannot organize and we cannot create change. Sexual and domestic violence in the U.S. and in Baltimore is at a crisis level.

In the first three months of 2016, there were 6,247 calls to 911 for domestic violence in Baltimore City. That's more than from shootings, aggravated assaults and auto theft combined. Yet when we talk about public safety in this city, do we talk about domestic violence?

In 2010, the Baltimore Police Department came under fire after The Baltimore Sun reported that the BPD dismissed over half of 911 calls for rape by making no report at all or classifying the allegations as unfounded. In 2014, Johns Hopkins University received national attention after a student complained that a dean had discouraged her from formally reporting her rape. Johns Hopkins is now, along with Morgan State University, one of four colleges in Maryland under federal investigation for violating students' civil rights by mishandling sexual assault cases. This fall, calls for the resignation of Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano followed 11 women coming forward in a lawsuit claiming that maintenance workers used the need for basic repairs, such as heat, to coerce and sexually assault public housing tenants.

Nationally, one in three women, one in six men and over half of all transgender people will experience sexual violence as children. Of women with disabilities, 83 percent will experience rape. Native American women like me are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than any other ethnic group — and over 70 percent of our perpetrators are non-Native (as a citizen of Cherokee Nation, if I am assaulted on my tribe's land by a non-Native assailant, my tribe is prohibited from prosecuting my perpetrator). Girls in the juvenile justice system are also disproportionately (81 percent to 92 percent) survivors of sexual violence in addition to being disproportionately African American, Native American, Latina and LGBTQ.

Rape is most often talked about as a problem that lies in a set of bad individuals; a problem that we can solve by just addressing — i.e. punishing — the rapist. Yet rates of sexual and domestic violence are dramatically affected by public policies, cultural norms and systems of inequity. Institutions including universities, prisons, police departments and Baltimore's own Department of Housing create environments where rape and abuse thrive and where survivors have little to no access to justice.

If the statistics, which have not changed in 40 years, are ever to improve for future generations, we must listen to survivors. As the people most directly affected by this issue, we know best what needs to change, and we need the political power to make it happen.

Rebecca Nagle is the co-director and co-founder of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture and The Monument Quilt. She is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, a queer woman and a citizen of Cherokee Nation. Her email is

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