Sexual Violence: Naming the Problem
May is Sexual Assault Prevention Month, an annual opportunity to raise awareness and start conversations about a topic that we usually leave out of ‘polite’ discussions. This month is an opportunity for us to dispel the stigma and shame that surround sexual violence and to connect about what is an all-too-common experience. Unfortunately, most of us are taught to think and speak about sexual violence in ways that make it harder for survivors to speak up or connect with support.
This is partly a problem of language. Just the label of Sexual Assault Prevention Month makes it sound like we’re encouraging people to avoid sexual assault the same way we teach people to avoid drowning or getting struck by lightning. This approach to prevention makes it sound like we all just need to avoid dangerous situations and wear the proper things and we’ll be safe.
This approach to harm prevention also blames the victim. If you’re struck by lightning on the golf course, critics might say you shouldn’t have gone out that day. If you drown while boating without a life jacket, those critics might say you weren’t wearing enough. A more compassionate person might listen to either story and agree that no one was to blame and they were accidents.
None of these responses can be applied to sexual assault however, because it isn’t a tragedy that survivors could have avoided with more education. Neither is sexual assault a freak accident that ‘just happens’. Sexual assault is an action that one person takes against another. It is always a matter of choice. When we discuss sexual assault in ways that make prevention the responsibility of the person at risk, we ignore the fact that sexual assault doesn’t happen because of the choices of the victim. Sexual assault is always a choice by the perpetrator.
A small change in our thinking and in the language we use makes it possible for us to see the problem for what it really is. This makes sense when we apply it to other situations like a robbery being the responsibility of the robber not the victim. We need to take the same approach to sexual assault. If we want to prevent sexual assault in our communities, then we need to talk about it in ways that accurately name perpetrators as the problem without misdirecting blame on the actions of the victims and survivors.
So let’s look at the root of the problem. We know that men are responsible for the majority of sexual assaults in Canada regardless of the identity of the victim. The question for all of us is why are boys and men hurting other people in this way? Why are they disproportionately using sexualized violence to gain power over other human beings? What makes this possible and what can we do as a society to reduce this trend?
Violence Prevention Grey Bruce is sharing an article every week this month to help us explore the issue of sexual assault. We may have more questions than answers to share, but questions are important tools to identify the roots of a problem. And if we don’t focus on the problem we’ll never solve it.