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Preventing Sexual Violence And Supporting Survivors Is A Community Responsibility

The title of this post sums up the position that many have taken in efforts to prevent sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, incest, stalking, sexual harassment) and to support survivors of violence.  Such a stance goes against two problematic positions, one hostile and one supportive to survivors of violence.

  1. Hostile Victim-Blaming: Unfortunately, many people lay blame for sexual violence in the hands of victims of violence themselves.  Violent acts, such as sexual assault, are seen as incidents that are preventable simply by changing one’s behavior, interactions with others, appearance, and mentality.  First, survivors of violence, especially women, face the dilemma of providing proof that they have been victimized.  Second, if they are believed, they must provide enough evidence to convince others that such violence was not somehow the result of being sexually promiscuous, dressing in revealing clothing, giving “mixed signals” in interactions (sexual and non-sexual) with one’s attacker, drinking too much, and so forth.
  2. Supportive Victim-Blaming: Indeed, many are concerned with eliminating sexual violence for good.  But, efforts to prevent violence, like the above, center on the victims of violence themselves.  As an online op-ed at Ebony magazine points out, too much sexual violence prevention work provides potential and past victims of violence suggestions to protect themselves: don’t walk alone at night in unfamiliar places, tell a friend where you are going, watch your drinks at parties, don’t go home with strangers.  While this position differs from the above in its concern for survivors of violence, it too lays responsibility for sexual violence on the victims themselves.

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

With estimates denoting that 17-25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are survivors of violence (experiencing sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes), it is undeniable that a substantial portion of the US population is directly or indirectly affected by violence.  The numbers alone point to a larger, systemic problem that cannot be reduced to the individual motivations and actions of every instance of sexual violence.  Yet, there are many other social factors that contribute to making sexual violence a standard component of our social world, as well.

  • Myths and stereotypes: One barrier to acknowledging and addressing sexual violence and supporting victims of violence is the inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, “information” that pervades our culture regarding gender, sex, sexuality, and violence.  Sexual violence myths include assuming all victims are women, attacked by a lone stranger (a man) in a ski mask lurking in the bushes.  But, stereotypes outside of sexual violence also contribute to a false understanding of sexual violence: men with uncontrollable sexual appetites (“they can’t help themselves“), women who have or should have little interest in sex, strong and aggressive men and weak and passive women, LGBT people as sexual aggressors, etc.
  • Exclusive focus on victims: Even in prevention advocacy and research, we place so much attention on survivors of violence — who are they, what happened to them, how many are there.  Despite extreme underreporting of sexual violence because of stereotypes, the feeling that no one will believe you, fear of retaliation by one’s attacker, and so forth, we have some sense of the demographics of survivors of violence.  But, we know little about perpetrators of sexual violence, with most information coming from reports about those who have been convicted of sexual violence.  One important fact, surprising to some, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are not men lurking in bushes at night, nor are they otherwise innocent men who got carried away once in sexual activity; perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders (of both sexual violence and non-sexual crimes) and often know the person they attack.
  • Misplaced responsibility: Too often, potential and past victims of sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility for such violence and any efforts to prevent violence.  We, as a society, generally fail to place such responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And, when we do, we narrowly focus on them, while ignoring others’ responsibilities to prevent sexual violence and to support survivors.  Many advocates and researchers are beginning to promote the notion of bystander intervention, which calls upon others who witness violence to intervene.  And, while we must push to never see another case where bystanders stand idly by as someone is attacked, our efforts to encourage bystander intervention also include promoting ways to change the culture that condones sexual violence: challenging gender stereotypes and gender socialization in general; teaching about sexual violence; teaching about sexual violence as expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, and so on.
  • Exclusive focus on gender: Another barrier to comprehensively understanding sexual violence is focusing exclusively on the role of gender: men rape women.  What is missing from this narrow analysis, besides overlooking male survivors of violence, is attention to the ways that sexual violence intersects with race and ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, class, body size and shape, age, nativity, and ability.  Attending to these systems of oppression does not mean only documenting demographic characteristics of the survivors and perpetrators of violence.  It also means assessing how sexual violence may operate as manifestations of these systems of power, for sexual violence itself is an expression of power over another person.  For example, in many countries, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are raped by men in an effort to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
  • Ignoring the role of society: Given the pervasive problem of sexual violence in society, many advocates and academics have argued for thinking about sexual violence more broadly.  As noted above, we too often lay blame on individuals, especially survivors of violence, while ignoring the roles that communities, social institutions, and culture play.  Some have pointed out that we live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence — we live in a “rape culture.”  Various institutions, like colleges, the military, and the medical system, are implicated in their failure to prevent sexual violence, support survivors of violence, and punish perpetrators of violence.  Some have argued that these institutions are structured in ways that make sexual violence invisible and potentially even promote violence.

Indeed, given the complexity and multiple layers and dimensions of the problem of sexual violence, it seems like a tall task to take on.  But, in order to protect everyone from sexual violence and to support survivors of violence, we must address every aspect of the problem.  We can no longer leave the responsibility to prevent sexual violence exclusively in the hands of potential and past victims of violence.


2 Comments

  1. […] need to take seriously the bystander intervention approach to prevent sexual violence in academia.  That means it is not merely the responsibility […]

  2. […] of punishing perpetrators, for supporting and affirming survivors, and for truly practicing a bystander intervention approach to sexual violence prevention?  That could be us, […]

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