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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

Creating a Culture of Consent: Portraying Rape Culture in How to Get Away with Murder

*This post discusses the How to Get Away with Murder episode 01.13 aired on February 19th, 2015. It mentions various kinds of assault. If you think this will upset you, please do not read any further.*

In an episode that covered just some points of the multi-headed Hydra that is rape culture including: incest, female perpetrators, false accusations, and child assault, I was frustrated, saddened, and pleasantly surprised. It was an hour that tried to show multiple shades of gray that can be involved in sexual assault and rape culture and was hard to watch at times. The added surprise of the nod to consent at the end of the episode made the medicine go down easier.

Shonda Rimes is not known for treading lightly on controversy, and this ep was no different. Admittedly, I was angry the court trial plot was concluded by disproving a sexual assault allegation made by a male patient and levied at his female nurse. Despite the gender swapping, I got upset. As if switching the traditional gendered expectations of assault would make a difference in how the accuser’s false allegation came across to viewers. When this situation is portrayed in the media, it can often give life to the worn out argument that people who accuse others of assault are only doing it for attention, money, or defamation of the accused, etc. I’m tired of it. For the most part, it’s rarely true, and casts doubt upon the multitudes who do step forward to tell their stories. Yes, it happens, but no more so than with any other crime. We don’t doubt people when they’ve been robbed, we shouldn’t doubt survivors when they say they’ve been assaulted.

Threaded throughout the episode was another story line about assault. The viewer learns that the main character, Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis, was molested by her uncle as a child. She blames her mother, Ophelia Hartness, played by Cicely Tyson, for not protecting her, which caused a deep rift between them. Ophelia argues that that’s just what happens, “men take things” and reveals to Annalise a list of assaults that have occurred within their family. It’s crushing to see how the persistence of rape culture normalizes assault to the point where women assume and accept they will get hurt, just for being female.

Especially striking is the difference and expectations between the two. Ophelia assumes and accepts that it’s human nature that men will hurt and that women will get hurt. It’s been her experience, and many generations back experience, and she sees no reason for why it would change or how it could be any other way. Annalise refuses to accept rape as her payment for being female, and is shocked to learn about the brutal history in her family which is dropped by Ophelia like an atomic bomb into their argument. She also bristles against her mother’s assertion that women’s roles are that of creators while men are the destroyers. She tries to disprove her mother’s argument of essentialism by highlighting her own lack of nurturing characteristics to Ophelia who doesn’t agree and won’t listen.

Their relationship is rife with hurt, distrust, and borders being abusive. It explains so much about what we know of Annalise’s marriage to her now-dead husband, and about Annalise herself, her secrets, her brusqueness, her way of being in the world. Later, she and her mother reach an understanding when she learns that Ophelia protected Annalise as best she could. It’s a heart wrenching scene, but it leaves me with hope. In the short amount of time between her mother’s generation and her own, Annalise has moved past her mother’s acceptance of rape culture and strict binary definition of gender and can see that something better is possible.

Another sign of hope in the hour comes at the very end. A sober Connor is putting his very drunk on-off-on again love interest Oliver to bed. Oliver tries to seduce Connor, and while Connor has expressed his interest in Oliver before, he refuses his advances, promising that it would be better when they’re both sober. It’s an important scene and gives reassurance that despite Ophelia’s pronouncement, we are able to move past our base natures to create a culture of respect and consent. You can take off your drunk boyfriend’s shoes, say thanks but not now, kiss him, and walk away.

We are all affected by this culture but we have other options besides hurt and get hurt. Like Annalise, we can go beyond rape culture and work on creating something better.

—–
Meredith Donin, Manager
We End Violence

The Backlash Has Begun

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

 

 

Bystander Training Good, but Not the Answer

Bystander training is one way, but not the only way, to prevent sexual assaults on college campuses. This was among the comments made by Annie E. Clark, founder of End Rape on Campus, when she was a guest last Wednesday morning (April 30th, 2014) on the On Point radio show with Tom Ashbrook. The topic of discussion was the report released Tuesday (April 29th, 2014) by the White House Task Force to protect students from sexual assault.

Clark expressed a note of caution when another guest, Inge-Lise Ameer, senior associate dean of Dartmouth College, touted bystander intervention as the most promising practice in prevention. In Hall’s opinion, it is more important to focus on primary prevention, stopping sexual violence long before it starts, rather than intervention in a public moment of violence that has witnesses.

The comments on the On Point website during and after the segment illustrate why simple bystander intervention is limited. The lack of basic understanding about sexual assault is obvious among the commentators, as it is among the general population of college students. This is a fundamental problem when asking people to step up and step in to a potentially violent situation. Without a basic understanding of what sexual assault entails and the ability to think critically about prevention, actions can be ineffective, or worse, they can be dangerous for the bystander and others.

Hall’s opinion that prevention is more important than intervention is shared by many, including We End Violence, and all other sound and thoughtful bystander training programs. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has published a booklet on Engaging Bystanders that urges us “to create more engaging words and images” than bystander. They write, “The reality is that everyone is a bystander, every day, in one way or another to a wide range of events that contribute to sexual violence.”

We are all bystanders and we can practice prevention far beyond being a hero in a single event.

We End Violence incorporates bystander training within education that stresses critical thinking, basic knowledge about sexual violence and survivor support skills. WEV has accepted the challenge to “create more engaging words and images” by developing Agent of Change, a prevention program that moves beyond a limited bystander concept and teaches how to be proactive as well as reactive to the everyday language and attitudes that support sexual violence.

 


Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

If a Friend Is Accused of Assault

What would you do if someone you know is accused of sexual assault? This is a question we may all face, possibly more than once, in our lives. We know that sexual assault happens a lot, and we know that most assaults are not reported. That means all of us know both victims and perpetrators, although, most of the time, we don’t know that we know them.

Perpetrators of sexual assault are among us. Sometimes they are our friends or family members or famous people we admire. It is painful to accept and difficult to know what to do when faced with that situation. Each of us will react differently, but coming to terms with how we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions is an unavoidable task for all of us.

The friends and family of former NFL player Darren Sharper are being asked this question by reporters right now because he is a well-known athlete and in the news for multiple charges of drugging and raping many women. Sharper’s high school football coach, Gus Allen, has a photo of Sharper hanging on his wall. Allen and his wife, Jeri, said they will not be taking the photo down.

“I don’t plan to take it down because that’s not the Darren we knew,” Jeri said. Darrell Jenkins, Sharper’s high school basketball coach, said, “But when (the allegations) first broke, I was just completely shocked. At first you want to say it can’t be true.”

This is how most of us would react. We don’t want it to be true, and, most of the time, the person we know is not someone we would suspect of hurting others. One of the most persistent misunderstandings about sexual assault is that it is committed by someone abnormal, someone not like us. When it’s a friend, this misunderstanding contributes to the belief that the accusation must be a mistake, or malicious, and we grasp for other explanations—maybe the survivor didn’t say no clearly enough, or is confused, or lying. This misunderstanding about sexual predators is among a set of beliefs and assumptions that allows us to sidestep the pain of holding someone accountable for not asking for sex, not respecting the answer, and not caring what another person wants.

There are very few false reports of sexual assault, so when someone discloses an assault, it’s important to believe them. Many people are working hard to change the world so that survivors will feel supported, feel able to speak out and tell someone, or report what happened. Our success will mean there will be more reports, more survivors talking about what happened, and therefore more of us will know perpetrators. If the accused person is a friend, it’s a natural first reaction to want to believe and support them. Just remember, you don’t know what happened but you do know that the vast majority of victims are telling the truth.

If you decide to remain a friend, you can still confront your friend about behavior and attitudes that contribute to sexual violence. You can listen, and be sympathetic to the situation without being sympathetic to perpetrators. Consider your own safety if you continue to spend time with your friend, and be aware of what you say publicly about the accusation and the people involved. For instance, publicly declaring the accusation a lie reinforces the myth that survivors lie about rape and might prevent someone from reporting in the future. It might be damaging to those who are survivors, confirming what they feared about not being believed.

So what do you say publicly? Here are some ideas:

• I don’t know what happened in this case but I know that sexual assaults do happen a lot.

• Nobody but the two people involved know exactly what happened, but I learned that there are very few false reports of rape.

• I’m just sorry that there’s even a possibility that something like this happened.

• This is upsetting for everybody, me included, and I guess it’s an opportunity to think about sexual assault and why it happens.

You may decide that you cannot remain friends. Our societal search for ways to hold sexual predators accountable must include methods beyond the criminal justice system. They must receive a clear message from everyone around them that their behavior is not acceptable, not excusable. Ending the friendship and telling them why is a clear message.

Sexual violence and abuse will end when enough of us learn what it really looks like and acknowledge that perpetrators are sometimes people we know. Predators are surrounded by the rest of us; even when we don’t know them, we can make it clear that disrespectful and violent language, attitudes and behavior are not acceptable and will not be supported.

 


Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence

State of the Union, Indeed

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.

 


Carol Mosley
Director, We End Violence

Ten Years After Kobe: Sports, Sexual Assault, and the Media

The current sexual assault case involving Jameis Winston has brought back memories of the Kobe Bryant case. They are both famous, elite athletes who are lauded for their physical ability. They have fans who will defend them beyond reason; in Bryant’s case, literally to the point of threatening death to his accuser. The media coverage of the Winston case, especially sports media, has been extensive. As the case progressed, I started thinking about differences and similarities in how the cases are reported and discussed, and whether anything has changed.

Ten years ago, Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexual assault. The ensuing media coverage and widespread discussion had a huge negative impact on sexual assault survivors, on advocates who respond to survivors, and on educators talking to the public about the problem of rape and sexual assault. The most damage was the silencing of survivors who were surrounded by media discussions and common conversations questioning the validity of the report and the integrity of the survivor.

The overarching theme from that coverage was Bryant’s fame and ability as an athlete. That’s why the case was important. That’s why the enormous amount of coverage and discussion. The same is true of the Winston case. It’s only important because his team was ranked number one in the country, and he was a Heisman trophy candidate. Students at Florida State University who agreed to be interviewed after the announcement that no charges would be filed were relieved because now he could get back to playing football.

The sports media emphasis was, in both cases, on legal technicalities. Reporters and commentators interviewed legal experts who know very little about sexual assault cases. They rarely interviewed anyone knowledgeable about these issues or these cases. Although there seems to be more recognition in the Winston case that these are difficult cases to investigate and prosecute, there is virtually no informative discussion about why they are so difficult, including no conversation or commentary about consent, which is the heart of the matter as well as the most common and effective defense.

Sexual violence is not a problem that can by solved by lawyers, and sexual violence isn’t really the topic in these cases. The important questions for mainstream sports reporters and the majority of fans commenting on those reports are: will he be kept off the basketball court or football field or baseball field and will he receive Heisman votes?

In the ten years since the Bryant case, the use of comment sections after articles and blogs has increased so it’s possible to spend many hours reading opinions. However the current level of discourse isn’t encouraging if you’re looking for signs of a deeper understanding of sexual assault. Here’s some succinct examples from the comment section following the Daily Beast article:

Michael Christensen: Ok let me explain how it works. If your a high profile athlete, you can get away with rape and if your lucky sometimes murder. Its been proven over and over. I not saying this guy did it. But look at big Ben. [sic]

Jacob Fisher: Also if you are a high profile athlete, you get targeted by people looking for “hush money”. Im not saying she did it, but look at Kobe. [sic]

During the Bryant case, Charles Barkley said star athletes are in a position to be maliciously, falsely accused. He didn’t point out that stardom also surrounds them in a sphere of entitlement. I have had a few chances to talk with young men accused of sexual assault. Several of them couldn’t believe it, were convinced they did nothing wrong even though they admitted to behavior that was clearly an assault. Why? Because they think that what they did is what every man does; they think that’s what sex is, and what women—or some women, THOSE women—are for.

Images and ideas that merge sex and violence, something that happens often in the world of sports, contribute to the confusion about what is sex and what is sexual assault. Think about the language that little boys hear early in their lives as athletes. Sexual terms are tied to scoring, to overpowering, to winning, and they’re all used to define a real man. That’s the only sex education some boys ever receive.

I’m hoping for the day when consent, entitlement, and how we teach young people about sex and gender are part of the discussion any time a high-profile athlete is charged with sexual assault.

 

 


Carol Mosely
Director, We End Violence

Military Assaults (and Solutions) Hold a Mirror to Society

The amount of attention being paid to sexual assaults in the military is encouraging. Acknowledging the reality of these assaults is the necessary first step. Being shocked and angry about that reality is the next. Now the hard work of finding solutions can begin.

It would be a mistake to look at assaults within the military and the response to those assaults as fundamentally different from what happens in the civilian world. Yes, there are particulars about military life that are unique, and some of those factors do contribute to supports for sexual violence and additional barriers to reporting. Those factors need to be examined and changed. But the root causes of sexual violence and the barriers to reporting assaults are pervasive. None of our communities have done a stellar job at either response or prevention. It’s important to note that the military hasn’t been any slower with these steps than any other segment of our society.

While there are some communities, such as the military and college campuses, where the problem seems to be worse, there are no communities where sexual assaults are not committed or where cultural support for these assaults don’t exist. It is helpful to study the particulars but equally important to consider the commonalities.

Sexual assaults are a crime of power. They are rooted in beliefs about entitlement and who does and does not deserve respect. They are supported by rigid gender stereotypes, and fueled by common language that confuses sex and sexual assault. These beliefs and the language used to express them are the main barriers to reporting assaults and a big influence on what happens when they are reported. Survivors of the crime hear this language and wonder if they will be believed and supported. Jurors hear this language; commanding officers and members of military courts hear this language. It affects their understanding of these cases. It affects us all.

The current military struggle to develop alternative reporting options for military personnel who are assaulted is similar to the struggle that colleges face. The institutional structures, laws and regulations that complicate reporting procedures are different but the fact that there are complicating structures that often collide with a survivor’s need for safety and control is much the same. The search for effective prevention is also similar. Telling perpetrators that sexual assault is wrong and they might be caught and convicted is not prevention. Both military and civilian citizens need basic information about why sexual assaults are committed, what they can do to help prevent them, and how they can support survivors. Perpetrators will not stop until a critical mass of people around them call them out on their behavior. One of the bright signs in the work being done now by the military is some willingness to look beyond long-held beliefs about prevention that obviously aren’t working.

During the past year, We End Violence has collaborated with a number of Air Force bases on prevention efforts where the involvement of base commanders has been evident. In his presentations, director Jeff Bucholtz has used the straightforward approach–including humor and popular culture analysis–that has been successful for many years with college students. Jeff challenges stereotypical assumptions and pushes the audience to think critically about the causes of sexual violence and how we are all responsible for both positive and negative contributions to that violence. This approach has been welcomed by commanders as well as the base staff devoted to sexual violence response and prevention.

The military clearly has a big problem and they are being pushed hard to solve it. Perhaps this will be the segment of our society that leads the way.

by Carol Mosely, Director,
We End Violence

Changing Our Culture

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.

 


Carol Mosley
Director, We End Violence

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