Talk About Sexual Violence
By Jon Farmer
There are many topics that don’t come up in what your grandmother would have called ‘dinner conversation’. We’re specifically taught to avoid three in particular: religion, politics, and sex. But the fact that we’re discouraged from talking about sex has consequences, not the least of which is that we also avoid talking about sexual violence. This is strange, given that the majority of women and a significant number of men will experience sexual violence in their life times.
This is not a secret. Conversations about sexual violence do happen but not in the open and accessible way that we talk about less stigmatized issues like car accidents. Instead, conversations about sexual violence tend to be smaller and more fragmented, shielded in language about bad dates or situations to avoid for your own safety. Disproportionately, girls are introduced to the issue of sexual violence through the lens of self defence. Boys are not taught the same messages despite the fact that they also experience sexual violence.
This fact went viral in late 2018 through an activity that educator Jackson Katz regularly uses in lectures. Katz – a well known writer about men’s violence against women and founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention – asks the men in the audience what they do on a daily basis to avoid being sexually assaulted. The standard responses go something like: “nothing, I don’t think about it”. He records their answers in one column and then asks the same question to the women in the room. The women’s column is always much longer. It includes things like “carrying keys between fingers when walking to my car”, “never accept drinks from strangers”, and “always go out to bars or parties in a groups”. The differences in these responses are not surprising. A recent Owen Sound high school graduate repeated the exercise in one of her classes last year and the results were the same.
As a society, we are more likely to talk to women about how to avoid sexual assault than we are to speak to men about it at all. Boys who don’t experience sexual violence are left to learn about the issue as young men through the media, online, or through their peers. These sources do not guarantee accurate information. Think about it. When was the first time you spoke about sexual assault or sexual violence? How did you learn about the issue?
Now think about the last time you discussed sexual violence. If you can’t remember when that was, that’s a problem. Not talking about sexual assault and sexual violence sends the message that we are not supposed to talk about it, or worse, that it doesn’t happen.
In a previous article I outlined that one in three Canadian women and one in six Canadian men will experience sexual assault in their life time. We know that these incidents are under reported and if we expand the definition to sexual violence – which also includes things like harassment and the distribution of intimate images without consent – then the numbers easily reach into the majority.
The spectrum of sexual violence is long, from insults to assault and normalizing any type of sexual violence normalizes every type. Just think about the number of women who are cat-called, threatened with rape, groped at a bar, or who have received unsolicited pictures of a stranger’s genitals. Think about the number of men who have been harassed, insulted, or demeaned in sexual ways. In all cases, men perpetrate the majority of the violence and the beliefs that justify one of these things could be used to justify any of them.
As we mark Sexual Assault Prevention Month, we need to acknowledge how common sexual violence and sexual assault are. If we all understood that the majority of women and a significant number of men have experienced sexual violence, then our collective behaviour would change. Assuming that we have a basic level of empathy, it would have to.
How could a person joke about rape, knowing that someone around them had experienced it? How could a person grope another on a bus or at a bar if they understood the impact that their childhood molestation had had? How could boys share nudes without permission if they understood how many times that has pushed girls towards suicide?
The consequences of sexual violence are life and death and yet we don’t often talk about it or sexual assault. Instead misunderstandings, shame, and stigma multiply in the silence. When we don’t know how to talk about an issue at all, we certainly can’t talk about it with compassion. In the case of sexual violence, we’re left with victim blaming myths instead.
Survivors of sexual violence know that they can’t speak about their experience with just anyone. They grew up in a culture that taught them so. Many believe they can’t speak about it at all with the consequence that for every 1,000 sexual assaults in Canada only 33 are reported to police, and only three lead to a conviction. That’s a 3.3% reporting rate and a 0.3% conviction rate.
Clearly, when we don’t talk about sexual violence it continues. So let’s talk about it. We can start at any age by teaching children the proper names for their body parts, the importance of respecting other people’s boundaries, and to trust their instincts if a situation feels scary or wrong. We can teach adolescents that it is necessary to talk about consent, healthy relationships, and respecting other people in every situation. As adults, we can do the personal work of figuring out how to be safe enough that someone might speak with us about their experiences of sexual violence. We can learn how to support them if they do. We can learn how to respond with compassion, to refrain from blame, to thank them for trusting us, and to ask what kind of support they need right now.
It is possible to have conversations about sexual violence that make the world a safer place. But before we can get there we have to start talking about it, period.
Jon Farmer is the Coordinator of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce
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