February 1, 2012

What is rape? Most people picture a man physically overpowering a woman and forcing her to have intercourse. While that certainly is rape, most sexual assaults don’t fit that stereotype.

In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report shedding light on how widespread sexual violence is in this country. Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, objected in an op-ed [“A false portrait of U.S. sexual violence,” Sunday Opinion, Jan. 29], saying that the CDC defined sexual violence in “impossibly elastic ways.” But think: If you asked 10 friends whether they have ever been raped, you likely wouldn’t get many yeses. If you asked whether they’ve ever had sex against their will or had been coerced into sex, or had unwanted sexual contact, the number would probably be much higher.

Consider: A teenage girl is pressured into having sex for the first time to keep her older boyfriend happy.

Consider: A man puts his hand on a young woman’s thigh as she sits next to him on a bus. He moves his hand up and touches her genitals.

The open-ended questions that the CDC asked in its survey get at the real problem. Do we care only about stopping women from being assaulted by men and forced to have sex? No. The questions are vague and broad because the reality of sexual violence is vague and broad.

Do you want to know the size and complexity of the real problem? Or do you want, as Ms. Sommers did, to blame feminists and the CDC for “send[ing] scarce resources in the wrong directions”? I choose the former.

Lauren R. Taylor, Takoma Park

The writer is a member of The Post’s editorial page staff and an anti-violence trainer.