[If you have been a victim of sexual assault, tell someone. In Canada, you can visit the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres to find a rape crisis or women’s centre in your province. Children and teenagers can call the Kids Help Phone or call 1‑800‑668‑6868 to talk to a counsellor. In the US, you can call RAINN at 800-656-4673.]
Sexual assault is sexual assault no matter the situation, that should be the end of the discussion but of course, nothing is ever that easy.
Despite disturbingly high rates of sexual assault over the years, rape culture is preventing this grave matter from being taken seriously.
Rape culture is a concept within sociology that refers to a set of beliefs and behaviours regarding gender and sexuality that normalize sexual assault and harassment. Most people might not even know they’re a part of this harmful discourse because they are so constantly exposed to it.
One common example of rape culture is dress codes in school. In this situation adults are telling young girls they are objectified regularly and they must take responsibility for themselves; when really, they should be educating young kids that objectifying anyone is wrong. It also implies that if a girl is not covered up it’s okay to sexualize her.
Girls are constantly having to learn countless and increasingly strange ways to defend themselves against the threat of sexual assault. I’ve even been advised multiple times to be careful to stay at least a foot away from the side of my car when getting in, in case there is someone underneath waiting to grab me. We as a society are obviously not doing enough to educate people that taking advantage of someone is inexcusable.
You may want to argue that you personally have grown up in an environment where sexual violence is frowned upon, but there is no indication that the number of sexual assault cases are dropping. It seems that no matter how much we seem to be teaching good morals, it doesn’t seem to be enough.
By primarily educating possible victims, the message that gets sent is that assault is inevitable. If you are a young girl, you’ve likely been subjected to a lecture or talk where an adult is telling you how you can protect yourself if a man starts attacking you. I asked some teenage boys if they have ever had been given such a talk. None had. In terms of having to learn self defence the most common reply was “I never had to or felt the need to learn.”
I also asked if they had ever been given a lecture or talk about respecting people and the importance of consent. Once again, they couldn’t come up with an example.
A common concept that stems from rape culture is that men can’t be assaulted and that all rapists are men. In fact, under the UK legislation “The Sexual Offences Act 2003,” a woman cannot commit a rape. It may be true that 98% of sexual assault perpatrators are men, but that doesn’t mean women can’t be rapists. People seem to think that women can’t assault people because men tend to be biologically stronger. However, there are so many other factors involved with assault. In fact, almost 15% of men are assaulted. Glossing over this fact harms male victims that need support.
Consent is the most important piece of all this. If someone doesn’t explicitly say yes, it means no. “I don’t know” means no, “I’m tired” means no, “I want to stop” means no, “I changed my mind” means no, “I’m uncomfortable” means no, if the person is under the influence of drugs, alcohol or any other decision making inhibitor, it means no, if the person you are with says anything but a clear, certain yes, it means no.
In media, consent is barely ever portrayed, or if it is, it’s presented as a “mood killer.” In the Hulu original Younger, a man asks Hilary Duff’s character if he can kiss her, and she laughs. “What?” she says “Sorry I just thought that Obama’s speech writer would be a little smoother than that.”
If youth are only being exposed to consent in a negative way, it will become a negative in their minds as well. By ignoring or painting consent in an adverse way, it makes consent optional or unneeded which leads to more assault cases.
Rape culture is extremely harmful and the problem is, no one even notices they’re contributing to it.
During the research for this article I put out a public survey online to Burnaby high school students asking questions related to sexual assault. 70 students responded.
When asked, “Have you ever been touched non-consensually?” 68% answered yes while only 33% said no. When asked “Has anyone tried to justify sexual assault to you?” only 5% said no. Some common examples of people’s justifications were: drugs or alcohol, they thought the victim wanted it or were asking for it, or it was just a joke. Justifying sexual assault is damaging and inexcusable. There is never a situation that could make sexual violence okay, whether it’s rape, any form of non-consensual touching or even non-consent in established relationships.
There was an open section where the students were asked to recount a time where they were sexualized or objectified and it got the most responses out of the whole survey. Numerous were about dress codes in school or clothes in general. Many said they’d been slut shamed by strangers, even by their own family.
A most disapointing result was on the question “If you’ve reported a sexual assault did it lead to a conviction?” Out of 65 people who said they reported their sexual assault, only one person said they got a conviction, that’s 64 young people with no closure.
There were five responses that said they had been assaulted but didn’t report, the reasons were increasingly worrisome: “I didn’t want to report because everyone told me that it wasn’t that big a deal or outright said I was lying, I didn’t want to bother anyone or make a scene so I just kept it to myself.”
Another student wrote, “I didn’t know who to tell or what to say, I was scared no one would believe me and no one would care.”
Another wrote, “I didn’t think there was enough proof and the idea of having to relive it seemed too hard.”
And another student reported that even the police were not helpful. “I reported it but the police just told me to change my route and stay out of that area because assault is inevitable.”
The fact that people’s first reaction to assault or rape isn’t to immediately inform authorities is contributing to the normalization of sexual violence as perpatrators won’t feel the threat of conviction. Victims should not be afraid or discouraged to report assault or nothing is ever going to change. This being said, if a victim is not ready to talk or comes out to talk about it years later, they are absolutely valid and not at any fault.
The next main contributor to the normalization of sexual violence is the fashion in which people seem to deal with or react to it. I’ve been a part in several conversations in which someone has reported sexual violence. I’ve heard a number of responses that sympathize with the experience, but it unintentionally implies that it is just a normal part of life.
“Yeah, that’s happened to me a bunch of times.”
“I know a lot of people that have gone through that too.”
The general gist of many people’s responses is that it is a normal experience for teenage girls.
According to Statistics Canada, about half of assaults reported ends in a charge being laid, only half of those cases even make it to court. After they’ve made it to court again only have led to conviction. In the end only 12% or reports lead to conviction and 7% lead to a custody sentence. Most of the time sexual assault victims are just forced to move on with their lives. This could then lead to mental illnesses, primarily anxiety, PTSD or depression, wariness or reluctance of trust in the justice system, untreated, severe trauma or distress from sexual violence can often lead to suicide. Continuing to not distribute justice for sexual assault further normalizes the issue as then assaulters won’t feel the threat of prosecution.
As a victim of sexual assault, I can’t even begin to describe how helpless and powerless it makes you feel, it feels like someone has ripped away your sense of self and leaves you feeling small. If a person has never been sexually assaulted and they take it upon themselves to try and justify it, saying something like, “Oh my gosh I can’t believe she would wear something like that, isn’t she ashamed?” ”They only ____’d you, that doesn’t count” or “How could they assault you, you guys are dating, doing that is normal,” that person is part of the problem.
It’s the people who are contributing to the issue and don’t even know it that can be the most harmful. Next time you’re part of a discussion about sexual assault, take a second to really listen and read in between the lines, you may be surprised what you learn.
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