A couple of months ago I read about an Oregon woman, 21, who was asked by her 24-year-old neighbor, whom she knew, for a ride into town. Once in the car, the man pulled out a gun and ordered the woman to drive into the mountains, where he sexually assaulted and then murdered her. Readers’ comments beneath this online article shrugged off the episode either because of where the woman and man live, or because the woman allegedly had a “reputation.”
Once at the gynecologist’s office in rural The Dalles, Oregon, I was filling out an intake questionnaire for an annual exam. Because I am a writer and, by nature, think about big-picture things, I answered the question “Have you ever received unwanted sexual advances?” with “Hasn’t everyone?” The doctor did not appreciate that I was being philosophical; she spent ten minutes asking a series of pointed questions until I assured her that I was safe in my home.
I’ve done no research to back this up, but I think it’s safe to say that anyone and everyone, female or male, experiences an unwanted sexual advance at least once in their lives. A stare, a brush-up, an inappropriate comment. I write this not to decrease the seriousness of harassment but to out it as a problem for everyone, not just “white trash” or “sluts.”
When it comes to more serious advances, the perpetrator is usually someone the victim knows. In a rural area, this gets especially tricky because the victim will probably also know the perpetrator’s family, and they hers. Most rural cultures still revolve around traditional male and female roles, which can lead to women being doubted when accusing a man of sexual assault and can cause women to not report a crime at all, because the prosecution of the rapist might affect a family member’s or friend’s ability to pay their bills. This can make bringing a rapist to justice—if it is even attempted—a protracted, ugly affair.
I did some editing work for a domestic violence shelter in the same town my doctor’s office was in, and learned a lot. The executive director, Tara Koch, is a tireless advocate for people who want to leave violent and/or abusive relationships, and her staff and volunteers are brave supporters of them, collecting food, household items and money. She and her staff have an uphill battle.
Rural law enforcement officers do not always have the training to understand and appropriately deal with domestic violence patterns and issues. They usually lack resources to investigate domestic violence calls, and are physically at risk when they investigate them, especially when answering calls to remote, secluded homes. And they may have personal conflicts of interest, or convictions that are at odds with the rights of women.
Discussing rape and domestic violence can be uncomfortable. But the more stories are told, the more women will realize they do not have to bear the burden of sexual assault and domestic abuse alone, and the more abusive men will realize it’s no longer something they can get away with. Doing nothing will only allow it to continue.