This enormous, amazing, and long-needed attention to sexual assaults on college campuses is making–and will continue to make–our world a better place. The national public attention to this problem is recent but the work that led us here has been going on for decades. It has been a difficult journey to get to this point and no change of this magnitude comes without resistance. Resistance was predictable, some is understandable, but we need to move forward with the momentum we’ve earned towards positive, effective change.
Backlash is actually a sign of progress. It happens every time there is a substantial shift that appears to threaten common beliefs. For activists and educators, backlash is an opportunity to improve our teaching. It’s the common beliefs about sexual violence that are hurting us all.
The fact that sexual violence is a gendered issue contributes to the confusion for many people and fuels the backlash for some. A colleague once said to me “You believe all men are guilty,” an assumption made because I worked with survivors who were predominantly female and assaulted by males. I know many other advocates have heard statements like that, or were affected by the unspoken assumption of misandry which dismissed their knowledge and commitment. We’ve made some progress, but that belief has not entirely vanished.
It is true that the majority of the perpetrators are male and the majority of victims are female and that is an important fact to consider as we look for causes and solutions. However, that is just a part of the story of gender and violence, and stopping there leaves some men feeling accused and some women feeling confused. Almost all women have men in their lives they trust and love. Almost all women know that every man is not a rapist. Stopping there keeps us from adequately recognizing female perpetrators and male victims and contributes to making those who don’t conform to these two genders invisible.
There is much more to the story of gender and violence. For example, societal expectations for boys and men to be masculine can push them into strict roles and behaviors that are unhealthy for them and the people around them. Think about the words used to bully boys and men–pussy, wimp, mama’s boy. These are gendered words and they reflect and support beliefs and attitudes that can lead to violation.
Aspects of the current backlash come out of that limited interpretation of gendered violence as a gender war between men and women. While sexual violence is a societal problem, the particulars are what affect individuals, which is why other forms of backlash are so intensely personal and can sometimes become legal struggles. Just as the Clerys reacted to the horrible assault and murder of their college-student daughter by working to have federal legislation enacted, many students today are suing their schools for not abiding by Title IX regulations. On the other side, some parents believe their offspring are falsely accused of assault. In turn, they will fight by opposing the systems and the movement they hold responsible, specifically through the system of adjudication which jeopardizes young men who face the possibility of expulsion from a college. And so, we’ve turned to the legal system for support and legislation to fix the social issue of sexual violence, lawsuit by lawsuit.
The legal approach is in some ways necessary. It is necessary that we figure out how to hold sexual predators accountable and do it in a way that also respects survivors. The way that we’ve changed the response to these violations via the law, policies and procedures is one mark of our progress. However, the problem of sexual violence cannot be solved through mastering the nuances of rules, regulations and statutes, or winning lawsuits—if only it were that easy. We all know the underlying issue goes far deeper than that. While changing law is an important step, it is still a reactive one, and only a part of the puzzle.
The biggest proven impact on both prevention and response is comprehensive education. Comprehensive education will build a wider and deeper understanding of these issues in our communities. It does not require people to read the statutes or understand the precise letter of the law. It is education that makes what appears to be complicated simple, cuts through the misconceptions and ignorance about sexual violence, and helps people to better understand the intent, meaning, and implementation of the law.
Sexual violence is gendered violence and it affects all genders. Knowledge and understanding of the problem will help all genders. Jurors will make more informed decisions on whether the law was broken. Parents will be able to talk to their children about consent. Asking for consent for sexual activity will not be considered weird, but merely something one does. Survivors will be more confident of being believed and receiving help. The sexual predators among us will be more easily recognized, and, as recent studies have shown, their peers will feel more comfortable telling them that their behavior is unacceptable and try to prevent future instances of violence.
Backlash shows us how far we’ve come and also gives us some direction for where to go next. Let’s move past emphasis and resources devoted to lawsuits and put our energy toward better understanding and solutions.
Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence