Sexual violence is often called interpersonal violence because it is committed by a person who has targeted another individual. The most direct harm is to that targeted individual, and the punishment—if any—is of the perpetrator. But it is a societal problem, not an individual problem. We are all responsible, and we all suffer. Preventing sexual violence is about us. It’s about the stories we tell, the language we use. Individuals commit the acts of violence but the community around those individuals raises them, teaches them, supports their behavior, rewards them, excuses them, and punishes—or doesn’t punish—them.
The Steubenville rape case is known for many reasons. Among them is the sympathy toward the offenders expressed by a CNN reporter in response to the guilty verdict. Her statements were jarring, but her sentiments were compassionate. They were well-intentioned comments, just focused in the wrong place. What is sad is not that the young men were receiving punishment they deserved; what is sad is they were raised in a culture that taught them it’s acceptable to assault a drunk, young woman, then brag about it and laugh.
Even after the facts of that evening were well known, the young men were supported, not just for who they are, but also for what they had done. They will probably continue to be supported for the rest of their lives by people who believe it was her fault, that the guys were acting like any young male might. Because they were. They didn’t behave that way because they are sociopaths. They behaved that way because the dominant messages they had received for their entire lives taught them that kind of behavior was acceptable.
Basic media education easily points out these dominant messages, such as emphasis on rigid gender roles, rewards for sexually aggressive men, and disrespect for girls and women who don’t conform to a narrow definition of feminine. It’s not the fault of the media, however. Media messages reflect us and our beliefs. Pay attention to the everyday language around you and you will hear common phrases about “boys being boys” and “what do girls expect when they dress that way.” Media messages will not change until the society that creates and supports those messages has changed.
Prevention of sexual violence has historically focused on the individuals most targeted. Girls and women have been told for centuries what they should and shouldn’t do to prevent being assaulted or abused. Prevention instructions are heavily gendered, rooted in sexism, and one consequence is that when males are victims, they are invisible. Another consequence is that when a woman is assaulted or abused, the ingrained first thought of many people is, “Why didn’t she prevent it?”
In another recent high-profile case, football players at Vanderbilt University were dismissed from the team after being arrested for the sexual assault of a female student. Just weeks after being charged with five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of sexual battery, one of the players, Jaborian McKenzie, transferred to Alcorn State University and joined the football team. Here are two ways to think about this. One, he has not been convicted, deserves a hearing, and to use his talents as a player. The other, the campus should have waited until after a hearing and should not welcome him as a prominent student if he is possibly a dangerous perpetrator. Either way, the focus is on one individual.
What if the conversation was about us, not him?
What if we talked about why too many boys grow up thinking it’s OK to sexually assault a drunk woman, and too many others of all genders and ages silently let them continue to think this way? It wouldn’t solve the disagreement over whether McKenzie has the right to play ball for another team, or whether his presence on campus creates a hostile environment. It wouldn’t answer the question about what we should do with sexual predators. It wouldn’t change the complication of our unbalanced obsession with football or the racism embedded in everything that happens in this country.
This is what changing the conversation would do: it would get us closer to the heart of the matter. It would help us focus on real solutions rather than handwringing about the inevitability of sexual violence. It would help us all begin to understand that our everyday words and actions have an impact either positively or negatively. We can learn to recognize those moments when saying something as simple as “I disagree,” or “That’s not right,” will make a difference. When enough of us begin to make these statements, the collective impact will move us toward a future where girls and boys grow up knowing that respect for one another is expected.
We can all be Agents of Change.
Director, We End Violence