Guest Post: Megan Widman, MSW, Social Action Program Director, HAVEN
Michigan is in the national news this week as many discuss the controversial new law passed by our legislators. The new law will require women to purchase a separate insurance rider in order to have an abortion covered by their health insurance plan. This rider must be purchased by women in advance of getting pregnant, no matter how the pregnancy came to be. There are absolutely no exceptions for rape, incest, or domestic violence.
While HAVEN does not take a stance on abortion rights as a nonprofit, we do very much advocate for laws, policies, and practices that are supportive of survivors of sexual and domestic violence. We know the prevalence of these crimes is high. Approximately 1 in 4 women will be the victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. About 1 in 5 women will be the victim of attempted or completed sexual assault.
These numbers are very real to us; after all, we have sat next to many of these victims right after they have been assaulted. Last year alone, our Safe Therapeutic Response Team (START) conducted 201 forensic exams right here in Oakland County. Our nurses provide these exams within 96 hours of the sexual assault, and, accompanied by an advocate, hear the stories these women are brave enough to share with hopes of having their assailant held accountable. Many of these women bravely share that they want to go through with this invasive and sometimes painful medical exam because they do not want what happened to them to happen to any other woman.
We have also seen how they are blamed for the assault, with questions directed to them like:
- Why did you walk alone at night?
- Why didn’t you scream or cry out for help? Or
- Are you sure you didn’t give him mixed messages?
Many of these questions are coming to them from family and friends who, sadly, have absorbed the messages we receive from media and pop culture that fail to place the responsibility squarely on the rapist’s shoulders and instead blame the victim.
One of the most common reactions we see in the aftermath of a rape is that the survivor tries very hard to put the assault behind her and return to what life was like before the assault. This is a common reaction to the trauma of sexual assault, and one that we neither judge nor condemn. Many survivors will try to forget the assault happened and anything that triggers their memory in this area is avoided for a time period of days, weeks, months, or even years.
To imagine that women will now be forced to plan ahead for a pregnancy they did not have control over or welcome, adds insult to injury. The message from our Michigan legislators* (and the 4% of the population that signed the petition, taking advantage of a rarely-used loophole in our state law that would render this law veto-proof by our governor that previously vetoed it) is that women must pay (literally) more for being a woman.
It’s assuming the risks we face on a daily basis to our health and safety are within our control. When in fact, of the women in Michigan who are raped, 97% are raped by men, who made the choice to rape – leaving the victim with no choice at all. And now, in addition to never walking alone at night, not dressing scantily, not drinking too much, watching our drink, and a litany of other precautions that we are socialized to accept as our responsibility, we must now consider purchasing rape insurance.
On Wednesday, Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer so bravely shared that:
…over 20 years ago I was a victim of rape. And thank God it didn’t result in a pregnancy, because I can’t imagine going through what I went through and then having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker. And as a mother with two girls, the thought that they would ever go through something like I did keeps me up a night.
Senator Whitmer’s disclosure has gained national attention, mostly because it was poignant, heartfelt, courageous, and articulate. But isn’t there a bit of surprise, too? Doesn’t it shock us a bit that a successful woman like Senator Whitmer was the victim of rape, even if 20 years ago? Perhaps this strikes a nerve in all of us – that if someone like her can be a victim, then can’t we all? And, of course, while most of us know intellectually that anyone can be raped, we still hold stereotypes about what kind of woman is raped. It is this “othering” that contributes to a climate that allowed a law like this to be passed.
*Out of a total of 38 Michigan senators, only four are women. In the House, the numbers are slightly better with 24 women holding seats out of a total of 110 representatives. Overall, the percentage of women in our legislature is an abysmal 18.9%, lower than the national average of 24.2%. Even though about half of Michigan residents are women, we are grossly underrepresented in our legislature. To be fair, a number of women did vote in favor of this law and conversely, a great number of men voted against it. But it leaves one to wonder if the outcome of this whole fiasco could have been averted if our lawmakers were more representative of our population as a whole.