The President of the United States is talking about ending sexual violence.
Let’s take some time to think about that.
The President is talking about a topic that has been considered shameful for all of human history and whispered about in most social circles. Astounding. When I started my work as an activist and educator in the mid 1980s, we had to beg people to let us come talk about sexual violence. And now the President is talking about it on YouTube.
President Obama called sexual assault an issue that affects and involves all of us. He called out men to step up and model behavior for boys. But the biggest leap forward may be contained in what he didn’t say. He didn’t try to convince his audience that women don’t lie about being assaulted. He didn’t say that sexual assaults would not happen if girls would stop drinking and wearing revealing clothes and partying. He didn’t say the way to prevent sexual assaults was for women to learn how to say no.
He leaped over all that, expecting a level of understanding beyond victim blaming, beyond the myths and misunderstandings about sexual violence embedded in our culture.
Rape is about power, not sex. This is the mantra that feminists have repeated for 50 years and when you talk about a rape case that makes the news, something so awful that most of us have no trouble calling it awful, then yes, most people agree with that mantra. A case in which a man puts a gun to a woman’s head, tells her to drive to a secluded spot and rapes her—OK, that’s not about sex; that’s clearly violence, abuse of power. But a college man out for a night of partying who meets a college woman out for a night of partying, and then assaults her is a case many people don’t understand because they think that’s what sex is.
Some version of that is portrayed as sex in movies, on TV, in magazines, books, the Internet, and in everyday conversations. The confusion is further complicated by the gender role stereotypes for women and men such as the trope of women “asking for it,” when they go out and the assumption that men are “doing what men do.”
The President leaped over the mountain of cultural baggage confusing the issue. It is all right that he did. Dismantling that mountain is a job for the rest of us.
Progress comes in unexpected ways. Barack Obama didn’t speak about sexual violence exactly like Andrea Dworkin, or bell hooks, but the concepts, the reason he is talking about this issue, and the ways he is talking about this issue, come from their work, and the work of thousands of educators and activists, mostly women, over the course of many decades.
The support of the President is huge but, of course, doesn’t solve the problem. Let’s celebrate, and get back to work. There will be backlash, and turf wars, and thoughtful, sincere disagreements about the best next steps.
How can we better evaluate our prevention efforts? How can women and men work together in a way that doesn’t reinforce sexism? How can we use the power of law and policy without losing control of best practices and guiding philosophy? How can we hold perpetrators accountable while protecting the right of survivors to control and confidentiality? These are a few of the immediate questions. We will all approach them in different ways.
I won’t attempt a prediction about what happens next, but I’m looking forward to it.
Director, We End Violence