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The “Special Interests” of Rape Victims

Yes, Nikki Haley, sexual assault and domestic violence are public health concerns.

Jude Ellison Sady Doyle

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks to the media prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 in May. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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Alas, poor Nikki Haley. All South Carolina’s Republican governor wanted to do was protect the health budget against special interests” that distract from… protecting South Carolina’s public health.” And she chose such nasty, selfish special interests to oppose! Hemophiliacs, for example, or people with sickle cell anemia. Those folks sound pretty special.” And, then, of course, there was the bit that stuck: The rape victims.

Haley’s veto, forbidding $450,000 for the state’s rape crisis centers was overturned on Tuesday, by a vote of 111-0. Which is not surprising, considering the public’s furor. Aside from protests by advocates and survivors within the state, there was a barrage of feminist blog coverage. One crisis center published a letter from a survivor: I did NOT choose to be raped that night. I was ASLEEP in MY HOME, yet you are cutting a budget for people that did NOTHING WRONG!!!!!”

Well. None of that looks oh so very good, for a politician who, last week, was a favorite to be nominated as Mitt Romney’s VP.

Nor should it, of course. As lots of people have pointed out, demand for crisis centers, and for domestic violence aid, has risen during the recession. And South Carolina’s rate of sexual assault is well above the national average. Haley claimed the services are for only a small portion of South Carolina’s chronically ill or abused.” But in practice, that number amounts to more than 5,000 survivors in one year, over 25% of whom were children. The cut would have eliminated the only rape crisis center in the city of Charleston.

But it’s worth looking at Haley’s rationale for the cut. It would have distracted,” Haley says, from public health.” Much-noted callousness of the wording aside— to argue that the governor isn’t supportive of victims is, on its face, absurd,” said spokesman Rob Godfrey; which, good try there, Robert — it’s worthwhile to look at the governor’s actual explanation. Namely: That sexual assault, and domestic violence, don’t have much to do with health.

Which is a common misconception. Domestic violence is, in our common line of thinking, a, well, an interpersonal problem. A sad one, sure, one that you sure hope doesn’t befall anyone that you know. But the word we hear, when we hear the term domestic violence,” tends to be domestic.” Sexual assault is, likewise, something we think of as sexual. And, as the relentless assault on reproductive services proves, we don’t think sex has much at all to do with health.

But this is completely untrue. Sexual assault can result in post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, anxiety disorders and depression. Rape, specifically, is frequently complicated by later alcohol or drug dependency, according to some studies. This is to say nothing of STDs, or pregnancy, or injuries occurring concurrent with the assault. All of these are starkly medical problems to have. And as for domestic violence: Well, there’s the violence portion to deal with. Three-quarters of abused people who report the assault also seek care in emergency rooms. In fact, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States, and the number one cause of emergency room visits by women.

And when you consider the rates at which these things happen — one in five women report having been raped; one in four report being physically assaulted by a domestic partner — then what we have is a massive epidemic, affecting likely one-eighth of the population (these assaults are under-reported), which very frequently requires both emergency and long-term health care. That costs money. That needs to be funded. If one-eighth of the population contracted chronic pain from workplace injuries, would we find that to be a personal subject, unrelated to health care?

There’s a good reason to frame domestic violence and sexual assault as public health crises. There are many, in fact. And one of the better reasons is this: These personal problems, these things one ought to keep quiet about, these messy, domestic, sex issues… well, they just sound so womanly, don’t they? So icky. So touchy-feely. So much better, as with all female things, when they are kept quiet. When you talk about painful relationships, when you talk about violence connected to sex, people tend to zone out. They tend to push it off, into a mental pink ghetto, where girls talk about the problem of being girls.

Domesticity, sex: These are associated with women. And women are, in fact, more at risk of being victimized in those specific arenas. But to think of the issues in this way segregates them, and keeps them stigmatized. Not everybody’s got girl problems. But there’s one thing everybody has. Everybody has health.

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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.

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