There is still a little over a week left in April – Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). This is our annual 30-day-long recognition of a problem that affects far too many people, especially girls and women: sexual violence. The primary goals of the month is to raise awareness about sexual violence and, ultimately, eliminate it all together.
With nearly forty years of anti-sexual violence activism — are we aware yet? Unfortunately, not so much.
What Is Sexual Violence?
An important starting point for raising awareness about sexual violence is to define it. A major focus of sexual violence prevention is on sexual assault, which is typically defined as any sexual contact with a person without their consent, through coercion, or by force.
Because of inconsistent definitions in the law, especially from state to state, non-consensual sex is sometimes referred to as rape. Some distinguish rape from sexual assault to include any non-consensual sexual acts that involve penetration.
While these distinctions are important, at least for legal purposes, they are not inclusive of other unwanted sexual acts. So, advocates have pushed for recognition of the full range of such acts under the broad umbrella of sexual violence. This broader category includes:
- Sexual harassment
- Child sexual abuse
- Partner or marital rape
- Human trafficking
- Reproductive coercion
- Street harassment
The Basis Of Sexual Violence
Next, it is important to understand what sexual violence is based upon. Sexual violence is an expression of power. It is a tool that is used to physical, mentally, and/or emotionally control another person. It is not an expression of sexual desire.
In understanding sexual violence this way, the myths that someone simply goes over board, gets carried away, or that their hormones got out of control are dispelled.
By “power,” I am referring primarily to the social hierarchies, which place members of our society either at a high or low status. Most attention has been paid to sexual violence as an expression of sexism. In particular, women are afforded lower status and less power in society than men. There are various things that some men do to further limit women’s status or disempower them, or even take advantage of them, including sexual violence.
So, it is important to look beyond what, on the surface, appears to be a private, individual act of sexual violence. For example, the seemingly personal acts of acquaintance rape and spousal rape are fundamentally political because they serve as an express of sexism. But, sexual violence may also be based on other systems of oppression, including racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ageism, ableism, and fatphobia.
Sexual Violence And Oppression
But, sexual violence is not merely an expression of one or more of these systems of inequality. It is also influenced and justified by them. For example, sexism includes the rigid control of women’s bodies and sexualities, the sexual objectification of girls and women, and so forth. This creates a dynamic where girls and women are vulnerable to sexual violence, and in which some men feel entitled to women’s bodies.
When women are victimized, the act is justified by stereotyping men as naturally oversexed and women as asexual, or by blaming the victim. Alternatively, others may turn a blind eye, or even deny that it occurred.
Also, sexual violence actually reinforces these systems of oppression. Again, using the example of sexism, women’s subordinate status to men, and constrained opportunities and well-being are partly the artifact of sexual violence. Some reports suggest 1 in 4 women are survivors of rape or sexual assault, and, thereafter are at risk for facing various health problems. Even more women live in fear that they may be victimized (or revictimized).
Sexual Violence As A Social Problem
Reflecting the systematic component of oppression, sexual violence is not a random occurrence. And, all members of society do not share an equal chance of being victimized. Women make up 90 percent of survivors of sexual violence. In addition, there is evidence that repeat perpetrators of sexual violence account for most acts of sexual assault and rape.
Sexual violence, then, reflects a society-wide problem. Further, some social organizations and institutions play a role, either by 1) ignoring such acts, 2) failing to support survivors and protect victims from further harm, 3) failing to punish perpetrators, 4) condoning these acts, and/or 5) facilitating sexual violence. For example, colleges and universities have been criticized for (unintentionally) creating space for rampant sexual violence on campuses. Recently, more and more schools have come under fire for doing too little in response to sexual violence, or even discouraging reports of victimization.
Culturally, how we talk about sexual violence (or not) contributes to the problem. Too often, in everyday conversations, the media, pop culture, and so forth, jokes are made about rape and sexual assault, victims are blamed for their own victimization, and perpetrators are excused for actions. In fact, many have argued that we live in a rape culture because sexual violence and the cultural norms that condone it are so pervasive.
Another facet to this is the harassment and bullying that survivors face for reporting their victimization, and their and allies’ public anti-sexual violence activism. In other words, some victims and allies who speak out face a backlash, which aims to silence them. A strong effort is made to keep sexual violence invisible, or at least seem like isolated, random, private acts.
Sexual Violence Prevention As A Community Responsibility
Because sexual violence is such a huge, widespread problem, no one person can stop it alone. That is why many anti-sexual violence advocates are pushing for bystander intervention – a call for others to fight against sexual violence. This includes:
- Intervening when sexual violence occurs if it is safe to do so. For example, this can mean alerting a teacher if your friend confides in you that she is being molested by her uncle (and she agrees to have you tell the teacher). Or, making sure your friend, who is very drunk, gets home to his own bed after a party. Or, letting your coworker know that whistling at women on the street is a form of harassment and encourage him to stop.
- Supporting victims and survivors of violence. One of the most important things to do is ensure them that you hear them and believe them. (Unfortunately, they may be doubted by others, and face the broader victim-blaming norms in society.) Ask them how you can help them. And, ask them whether they wish to report their victimization (e.g., to the police). It is okay to encourage them to pursue either support for themselves or punishment for the perpetrator, but ultimately they can choose not to and you should respect that.
- Challenging victim-blaming and other aspects of our rape culture. For example, speak up when you hear rape jokes or “slut-shaming.” Or, write to media outlets or politicians who perpetuate these problems. Or, join an anti-sexual violence campaign or organization. Participate in your own or the nearest college’s Take Back the Night rally and other anti-sexual violence events.
- Educate yourself and others. For example, help to raise awareness about what sexual violence is, how it is a society-wide problem, and what we can all do to prevent it. Have frank, yet age-appropriate conversations with your children, students, or other young people about consent.
- Break the silence about sexual violence. This goes for allies and, if they feel safe and comfortable, survivors of sexual violence. This means bringing up the subject when opportunities arise, or even making those opportunities happen. My own approach is to blog and cover sexual violence in the courses I teach. While it may be difficult in some ways, I find that men who are allies to survivors can have great impact in speaking up about sexual violence.
Indeed, we are not there yet in having a good understanding of sexual violence and why it persists. But, hopefully, we will at least be closer by next year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month! And, of course, our collective efforts should not be limited to the month of April.
- Kinsey Confidential resources on sexual assault and consent
- Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), including their list of resources
- Take Back the Night campaign
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS)
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
- Men Can Stop Rape
- 1 in 6 – support for male survivors of childhood sexual violence
- US Office on Violence Against Women, including resources for violence against American Indian women
- INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
- I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse [book]
- Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence
- Alianza – National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence
- Fenway Health Violence Recovery Program for LGBT survivors
- Community United Against Violence – support for LGBT survivors
- “People with Intellectual Disabilities and Sexual Violence” Report
- Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services
- Everyday Feminism (lots of resources and information)