Connecting the Dots About Sexual Violence
By Joachim Ostertag
We all know someone who has experienced sexual violence. It could be a sister, a brother, our partner, our mother or father, our child or it could be our own experience. When we understand what sexual violence is and begin to talk about it, we start to see it everywhere. Once we see it, we can change it.
Sexual violence is happening at epidemic proportions but it is a topic that most people avoid. It’s hard to talk about. Most of us want to forget about it – out of sight out of mind. It’s as if by not talking about sexual violence, it’s not happening. This is called denial and it’s a natural response when we struggle to manage the pain, the trauma and our fear of the consequences of addressing this terrible reality and our own vulnerability. When we’re in denial, we hide from the truth and avoid addressing it. Over time we learn to normalize our silence and inaction.
Although sexual violence is part of the fabric of our culture, pop culture and the media support a narrative that these ‘incidents’ are happening in isolation and are unrelated. We hear about sexual violence as something that one person did or one person experienced. This is a big part of the problem because all sexual violence shares the same root. It’s like we can see individual apples but not the tree they’re falling from. We don’t see the big picture. And without looking at the big picture we can’t address the actual underlying issues as well as opportunities for change.
As an example, we can explore the sexual violence that has made the news over recent years:
- We’re currently hearing about “Sexual Misconduct” at all levels of the Canadian military with questions about who knew what and when, and who is responsible for letting it go on for so long. Survivors are coming forward and sharing heartbreaking stories of trauma that add human faces to a story that would otherwise come off as political posturing.
- Sexual assaults are also perpetrated by police officers against their peers. Last year, over 2300 women received compensation as part of a class-action settlement covering decades of abuse within the RCMP. Over 130 claimants disclosed penetrative sexual assaults. Other claimants described a sexualized environment and harassment in RCMP workplaces.
- Churches have a well documented history of sexual abuse against girls, women and boys reaching back centuries, with millions of victims finally being heard and finding justice. Sexual violence in church run residential schools had devastating impacts as part of the cultural genocide of Indigenous people in Canada.
- Sexual violence against Indigenous women has continued throughout colonization and is particularly high in areas connected to Canada’s resource extraction industries.
- The #MeToo and #Timesup movements exposed the extent of sexual violence in the entertainment industry and the way male celebrities silenced and destroyed women’s lives and careers if they spoke out.
- Pornography – a $ 100 billion industry – increasingly portrays and normalizes sexual violence and child sexual abuse. Studies show that 70 per cent of 15- to 17-year-old boys had watched porn. In 2020, the New York Times published an article exploring the prevalence of child sexual assault materials on the hugely popular website PornHub where videos advertise rape, revenge porn, spy-cam footage, and explicitly violent videos. These websites are available to anyone with an internet connection.
- Sexual violence also takes place within schools and the education system. The sexual assaults within the sports program at St. Michael’s College School made headlines in 2018. Locally, Owen Sound media have reported on past and current court cases where teachers are held criminally responsible for sexual assaults against female students.
- Organized sports have also struggled to protect players from sexual violence at all levels. Hockey players Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fluery broke the silence around sexual violence. In 2016 the world learned that a doctor working with the USA gymnastics team systematically abused more than 150 young athletes.
These are just a few of the high profile examples of sexual violence that have made headlines. Every day women, girls, men, and boys are sexually assaulted in Canada and around the world. Most of their stories are hardly ever told or make the news.
These examples of sexual violence happen in different contexts but they are not unrelated. They have in common that they are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, often within male dominated hierarchical institutions that are built on patriarchal belief systems. These systems continue to allow men to abuse with little risk of being made accountable. Instead survivors are often blamed for what they wore, drank, or said. We cannot solve the problem of sexual violence one incident at a time. We need to look at the whole picture and challenge the fundamental beliefs of patriarchy that lead to sexual violence.
Patriarchy is a male-centered, male-identified, and male-dominated social system. It is the source of continuing inequality where men claim the right to have power over women and children. Sexual violence is a tool of dominance. To end sexual violence we need to replace patriarchy with equality. If we don’t, then it will continue to take place in the military, the police, the church, our educational institutions, and our families.
The problem is large, but there are steps we can take to ‘be the change’:
- Recognize the gender and racial inequalities, injustices, misogyny and sexism around us.
- Be aware of power imbalances in relationships, at work and institutions, and be a role model by striving for justice and gender equality.
- Support female leadership and equality for women and men in all aspects of life.
- Recognize sexual violence not as a “Women’s Issue” but as an issue of male entitlement to the bodies of women, children, and other men.
- Speak out about all forms of sexual violence and have the hard conversations about the topic. Men need to step up and approach other men on the use of degrading language and sexist jokes. Everyone can change the story line so sexual violence is not seen as a ‘normal’ or inevitable part of life.
- Recognize male privilege. Men can speak up about entitlement and remind other men and boys that it is not right to sexually harass or abuse. We can use our privilege to support victims and survivors.
- Reconsider masculinity by taking a critical look at our personal definitions of gender and how they influence our values as men and women.
- Place the values of caring and equality in the middle of our personal, family, and community circles.
- Connect the dots with an intersectional approach. Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum and marginalized people are at a higher risk of victimization. We need to recognize how it relates to power and control, race, status, economic situations, gender norms, housing, and community services.
- Take personal action. Be an active bystander by listening and supporting survivors. Be clear to perpetrators that you disagree with their behaviour and attitudes.
We can educate the next generation and ourselves. We can inspire future feminists by challenging gender stereotypes and the violent ideals that children encounter in the media, on the streets, at school, and in their families
We can and should let our children know that our families are a safe space for them to express themselves as they are. We also need to teach the importance of consent at a young age and raise our children with care and nurturing. If we can do that and address the common roots of sexual violence, then when they grow up they will live in a safer world.
Joachim Ostertag is a community member of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce and retired supervisor of the Men’s Program