I spent most of this past spring and summer rolling my eyes every time I heard a news story about the swine flu. Almost every day local reporters got hysterical about 5 or 10 or 20 confirmed cases. Entire schools closed in response to a handful of kids with fevers, and as if there were no war in Afghanistan, no economic crisis, and no other epidemics claiming ten times as many lives, newscasters talked about H1N1 (the proper name for swine flu) for hours.
I have a degree in public health and my work focuses on preventing rape and other acts of violence and supporting survivors in healing from abuse. When I see all the attention swine flu is getting, I’m jealous. Other than intermittent news stories about sex offenders on the loose or why women who accuse professional athletes of rape are lying, sexual violence rarely gets any widespread coverage. Certainly no state of emergency declared by the President of the United States.
Now, I don’t want to diminish the grief of those who have lost loved ones to H1N1. I don’t even want to question the scientific validity of the Center for Disease Control’s decision to declare it a pandemic. But the fact remains that the impact of H1N1 is far less than that of other public health crises that receive a fraction of the attention and resources. The CDC reported just over 43,000 cases of H1N1 between April and July of this year and estimates that it will affect a million people, or 0.3% of the total population of the United States. Compare this to the 2.5% of women and 0.9% of men who reported being raped or sexually assaulted in the past year. The most recent statistics about rape available from the CDC are from last year. Swine flu? Last week.
What would our media, our public discourse, and our institutional responses look like if people cared as much about rape as they do about H1N1?