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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and our lives. Consider these facts:

  • Battering is the leading cause of injury to women aged 15 44 in the U.S.1

  • The FBI, which gathers data from law enforcement officials, indicated that 102,555 women were victims of rape in 1990.2

  • In contrast to the FBI data, the Rape in America study estimates that 683,000 women are raped every year.3

  • Approximately 50% of the homeless women and children in this country are on the streets because of violence in their homes.4

  • One-fifth to one-half of U.S. women were sexually abused as children at least once, most of them by an older male relative.5

  • Nearly two-thirds of women who receive public assistance ("welfare") have been abused by an intimate partner at some time in their adult lives. 6



Toward an Understanding of Male Violence Against Women

Race, Class, and Violence Against Women

Blaming the Victim

Sexual Harassment

Domestic Violence

Sexual Assault

Incest and Sexual Abuse of Children

The Sex Industry

Defending Ourselves Against Violence

Ending Violence Against Women



Given these facts, it is not surprising that the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action calls violence against women a violation of the human rights of a majority of the world's population. Women are statistically safer out on the street than they are in their homes.7

Violence against women is woven into the fabric of society to such an extent that many of us who are victimized feel that we are at fault. Many of those who perpetrate violence feel justified by strong societal messages that say that rape, battering, sexual harassment, child abuse, and other forms of violence are acceptable. Every day we see images of male violence against women in the news, on TV shows, in the movies, in advertising, and in our homes and workplaces. It is a fact of life for women of all ages, races, and classes.

I have never been free of the fear of rape. From a very early age I, like most women, have thought of rape as part of my natural environment--something to be feared and prayed against like fire or lightning. I never asked why men raped; I simply thought it one of the many mysteries of human nature.

In the broadest sense, violence against women is any violation of a woman's personhood, mental or physical integrity, or freedom of movement through individual acts and societal oppression. It includes all the ways our society objectifies and oppresses women. Violence against women ranges from sterilization abuse to prescription-drug abuse, pornography, stalking, battering, and rape.* It includes the sexual and physical abuse of young girls and the abuse of elders.

Every form of violence threatens all women and limits our ability to make choices about our lives. Sexual violence is particularly insidious because sexual acts are ordinarily and rightly a source of pleasure and communication. It is often unclear to a woman who has been victimized and to society as a whole whether a sexual violation was done out of sexual desire or violent intent or whether these motivations are even distinguishable, because violence itself has come to be seen as sexual or erotic.

Thirty years ago, most forms of violence against women were hidden under a cloak of silence or acceptance. As more and more women talked with each other in the recent wave of the women's movement, it became apparent that violence against us occurs on a massive scale; that no woman is immune; and that family, friends, and public institutions have been cruelly insensitive about it.

Over the past thirty years, women have mobilized to offer direct services to those who have encountered violence, to educate people about the range and nature of male violence against women, and to develop strategies for change. This chapter reflects the important work of some of these women.


Copyright � 1984, 1992, 1998 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. All rights reserved. Published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

To order Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century


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