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Fear: Why sexual violence is a social justice issue

The young woman said she was living in fear. She was chatting with me in a matter-of-fact way. She wasn’t in crisis and not particularly distressed.

She told me she didn’t become aware of living in fear until she was 16. She was a child of privilege and she knew it. She was white, her parents were educated, had good jobs, and they loved her very much. She grew up feeling safe, secure. It was when it was time for her to go out in the world that she began realizing all the ways she had been told to be afraid. This realization happened because of all the things she couldn’t do, all the places she couldn’t go.

She said, “Not because it was forbidden, but because it was too dangerous, and girls get hurt when they do those things, go to those places. Girls get raped. Since I’ve been in college, I have learned enough to know that my level of fear probably doesn’t come close to that of people of color or queer people, but still, it has constrained my life.”

She had never been sexually assaulted or in an abusive relationship. She had never been stalked. She had been taught that she was responsible for avoiding all those violations. She had been taught to be afraid. And that fear permeated her life.

This is why sexual violence is a social justice issue. Sexual violence is a social problem, a human problem. It limits the ability of people to live fully, to contribute to our world, to feel safe.

The majority of sexual violence is committed against the most vulnerable in our society: people with disabilities, young people, people who don’t fit a stereotypical gender norm, women. These groups are the most vulnerable because of systems embedded in our society that dictate who should be in charge, how we should all behave, and who is not worthy of respect. All people are not all equally at risk.

Being sexually assaulted is not merely a matter of bad luck, or behaving badly, or doing something stupid. It is not caused by miscommunication. It is power-based, and gender-based. Using a social justice approach allows us to recognize that women are more likely to be violated than men and to use that knowledge to seek solutions without excluding male victims or ignoring female perpetrators.

Sexual violence is committed primarily by one individual against another individual and that fact leads us to treat it as an individual crime. It steers us toward thinking it is bad people who do this and if we punish them, we have reacted appropriately and we are taking care of the problem. Yes, it is quite often a criminal issue, and yes, we need to react, and continue to try to find appropriate reactions. But, the criminal justice system is designed to follow, not lead. Reaction doesn’t solve the problem, and it certainly doesn’t prevent it.

By looking at gendered violence as a social justice issue, we don’t get trapped looking for individual solutions. Although they can seem well-meaning, ideas for individual preventions are an integral part of the oppression. This is what the young woman realized. This is how she had been taught to be afraid. Social justice means a better world for everyone. The messages she received have a companion piece—messages that tell young men they should never be afraid, they should take charge, and they aren’t men if they don’t follow those rules. The system of oppression constrains their lives, too. We are all constrained by the message that some of us should be in control and some of us should be controlled.

We will end sexual violence by understanding why it happens, and how it is a part of a larger system that includes many other forms of oppression. This is the goal and the promise of social justice: freedom from fear.



Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

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