By Karin Marr
In August, Missouri Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin said on national television: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
In October, Illinois Sen. Richard Murdoch said, also on national television: “When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”
While both of these men were specifically discussing abortion, their comments speak to the broader problem of our society’s seemingly calm acceptance of sexual violence and sexualized violence.
Thousands of students, on hundreds of campuses across the country are sponsoring events such as Humboldt States recent week-long “Take Back the Night” that also encompassed “The Clothesline Project” in an effort to raise awareness of sexual and sexualized violence. Indeed, April was national “Sexual Assault Awareness” month. But what exactly constitutes sexualized violence?
Paula Arrowsmith-Jones, 60, is the community outreach coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team.
“Sexual violence or sexualized violence is violence that is sexualized in nature,” she said. “It would encompass things like child sexual abuse, abuse or assault as a teen or as an adult. It might be in the context of domestic or intimate partner violence. It also would encompass sexual harassment and other things that might not meet a legal definition but that would have to do with demeaning and degrading people in some kind of sexual way.”
Jones said that nationally, it is estimated that around eighty percent of sexual assaults are not reported. The importance of raising awareness of such an uncomfortable topic is that many people either don’t know or are in denial about how pervasive it is.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and annually there are more than 200,000 victims. The site also says that “approximately two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.”
“Most rapes are committed by someone we know,” Jones concurs. “And they’re committed through the use of some other coercive techniques or manipulation, intimidation, and often alcohol and other drugs.”
Brandy Lara, an 18 year-old critical race, gender and sexuality major at HSU, feels that raising awareness about sexualized violence is critical.
“As easy as it is for people who haven’t been survivors of it to just set it aside and dismiss it, it’s very real for some of us,” Lara said. “You don’t have to be a survivor to be affected by sexualized violence in some way.”
“Any form of violence that takes place when one person is committing some kind of violence onto another person’s body,” Lara said, defining sexual violence. “Any form of sex between two people that isn’t consensual.”
Reeham Mohammed is a 21-year-old international student from Cairo, Egypt. She is studying journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State.
Mohammed said that the same sort of victim blaming and victim shaming that happens here in the United States also happens in Egypt. “Most of the people would say ‘Oh, why is she wearing that, or why is she walking in that way, why is she talking in that way?’”
“There are a lot of movements now, led by women looking for equality between men and women,” she said. “To shed light on the point that it is the fault of the men, it’s not the fault of women.”
It would appear that not only is sexual and sexualized violence a global, not strictly a national issue, but the shaming and blaming of survivors is as well.
“There are no circumstances under which it’s OK to hurt and harm other individuals,” Jones said. “To exploit, to demean, and denigrate, it’s just not OK.”
Jones said that the problem begins almost from birth. From the time they are tiny babies little boys and girls are trained to act in certain ways. Little boys are supposed to be strong, and tough, and play sports. Little girls are supposed to be pretty, and polite, and play with dolls.
Parents also teach boys and girls alike, inadvertently, that they have no right to ‘say no’ when it comes to their bodies. “Go ahead and give Aunt Marge a kiss.” Or “Give cousin Bob a hug.” Jones posits that though it’s innocently meant, the message that we are giving our children is that they have no say or no right to voice an opinion. We have all done it, or had it done to us as children.
“People have a right to their own thoughts and feelings and bodies,” Jones said. “We have a right to have an expectation of having those [thoughts, feelings and bodies] respected.”
Continually the prevention message that women get is to not walk alone at night, don’t drink too much at a party, don’t wear revealing clothing. The result of this message is the victim blaming that Mohammed spoke of earlier. In the United States there is also victim shaming that goes on. We’ve all heard about or seen what defense attorney’s do to rape victims on the witness stand. They are as much on trial as the perpetrators.
Is it possible to move from a rape culture society to a society where people are free to walk at any time of day or night, dress as they wish,
and go wherever they want, without fear of assault or molestation?
“I think the first thing we need to do is tell our sons, our brothers, our uncles, our dads,” Lara said. “Get rid of the idea of ‘well she’s wearing a short skirt, or she’s drunk and therefore it’s OK. Or, she’s pretty.‘ Get rid of those notions because it is never OK, absolutely not!”
As a professional who works with survivors every day as well as educating the community, Ms. Arrowsmith-Jones was a bit more succinct.
“We’re never going to end the violence unless, as a community, we’re all working together,” Jones said. “The key message to prevention is ‘if you want to end rape, don’t rape.’”
In 1963 then Mich. Gov. George Romney quoted Rabbi Hillel, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” It is a very good question.