Sexual violence is a public health crisis. Every 73 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. A staggering 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime, while 33% of women and 25% of men have experienced intimate partner violence. And this crisis exists in San Francisco. In 2016, there were 757 reports of adult sexual assault and 864 reports in 2017. However, it’s safe to assume the number of incidents that occurred is much higher than what was reported to law enforcement.
Despite the prevalence of sexual violence, San Francisco’s efforts to respond to, and prevent, such violence has not been prioritized by our elected leaders.
If we’re going to build a stronger, safer and more equitable San Francisco, we need to support survivors and take steps to reduce sexual violence. To do that, we need our elected officials to address sexual violence as an urgent policy concern. At present, sexual violence is rarely part of policy discussions.
Case in point: the policy platforms of local candidates running for office this year. Out of 65 candidates, only a handful mention sexual violence explicitly on their website, let alone their policy platform: Danny Sauter, Emily Murase, state Sen. Scott Wiener, Jackie Fielder, Assemblyman David Chiu and Shahid Buttar.
That’s why the Coalition of Local Anti-Rape Advocates — a recently formed organization aiming to hold The City accountable to the survivor community — created a Voter Education Guide. This guide calls on leaders to articulate their plans for tackling sexual violence so the survivor community can elect those who will fight for us.
The survivor community, a collection of survivors, advocates and allies, is a constituency with a unique perspective on how to radically improve our city. Not only that, but we have a diverse array of complex needs that deserve representation in elected office. We all deserve elected officials who listen to the survivor community and then enact policies that best respond to the violence which directly or indirectly affects every one of us.
When leaders in office are fighting for survivors, the greater San Francisco community benefits.
Without our collective voice calling for change, the status quo will continue, and San Francisco will remain in crisis. Law enforcement will continue to mistreat survivors, neglect their cases, disregard evidence, inadequately respond to drug-facilitated sexual assault, and dismiss survivors’ safety needs.
In fact, we can’t build a better San Francisco and “solve” the major issues our city is facing without confronting sexual violence.
While many candidates highlight homelessness, housing and the COVID-19 pandemic on their policy platforms, they fail to mention sexual violence even though it intersects with all three of these crises.
We can’t have a comprehensive policy discussion about the pandemic without consistent dialogue about the increased rates of domestic violence. There is no way to tackle homelessness without recognizing that survivors often find themselves on the streets after fleeing violence or coping with the immense trauma from violence. They then experience even more violence on the street. Similarly, policies around affordable housing need to reflect the economic barriers many survivors face.
Our leaders must grapple with the nuance these issues require and legislate where they overlap with sexual violence.
Beyond policy change, we need institutional change to create a more just San Francisco. A fundamentally just society is one whose institutions are survivor-centered, meaning they respect survivors and actively fight against systems of violence. (We can’t even begin to interrupt the cycle of violence without first building a culture that supports survivors). To implement this kind of institutional change, we need the help of our elected leaders.
Our leaders have access to credibility and power that many survivors don’t. Their support is critical in undoing the historical legacy of institutional distrust and mistreatment of survivors that typically plays out in workplaces, schools and the criminal justice system.
This is not to say that the transformative change our city needs should come from the top-down. Rather, the survivor community needs to band together as a constituency to demand that leaders at the top respond to sexual violence and the multitude of issues it’s intertwined with.
The survivor community is an unstoppable political force that can create the ripples of change San Francisco needs to become more safe and equal. With the backing of local leaders committed to our struggle, we can start a new chapter in San Francisco’s history.
Bianca Rosen is a writer, anti-rape advocate, and co-founder of the Coalition of Local Anti-Rape Advocates. You can find her on twitter at @_biancarosen_.