Preventing sexual violence

As I watch and read recent news reports, I find myself angered and saddened by the dialogue around sexual violence towards women. I see recent events leading to more polarization and increasing the permissive culture that distracts us from where the real change can and needs to occur.

Most women I know, myself included, have experienced sexism, sexually inappropriate encounters, or sexual assault. The overwhelming number of reports of sexist or assault experiences on #notOk, and its parallel movement in Switzerland #schweizeraufschrei confirm this. None of this is new or surprising to me. Yet, the quick and blatant dismissal, perpetuation of inaccurate information, victim blaming and judging going on in Switzerland and the United States is highly disturbing. When will we acknowledge the full spectrum of inappropriate, hurtful and illegal behaviour and then hold those responsible for their behaviours?

Change does not come from demonizing others or meeting political ends. Nor does it lie with strange men assaulting naive sexual women, as claimed by the Swiss politician Andrea Geissbuhler. The solution is not only in criminal sentences and punishment.

Most assault and abuse is perpetrated by people known by the victim. What happens before sexual assault and abuse? How does it get that far? Despite that many men do not act out such extreme hurtful behaviour towards women, and despite many people knowing how hurtful such treatment is, sexual assault and abuse continues. After the outpouring of stories on the internet, no one can say they are isolated incidents.

Denying the impact of these systematic negative responses to transgressions creates a permissive culture in which boundaries are at best blurred, at worst not respected and violated.

Yet, the media and our culture continue to promote sexist behaviour. Those in power positions (teachers, health professionals, employers, reporters, politicians, etc) often deny the importance of these “smaller transgressions” by:

  • Excusing or explaining away a man’s behaviour (“men are just being men”, or “it was not meant that way”)
  • Ignoring, dismissing a women’s boundaries, (their no) or protest reaction (“no means yes”, “women need a strong man”)
  • Excusing or explaining away the impact of the behaviour being critiqued (“It was not meant that way”, “he didn’t know…”, “he had a good reason”)
  • Attacking the woman who is indicating her boundary (“she is overreacting, if she can’t take it she shouldn’t be there, she is not …respectful, capable, attractive”.. etc)

These reactions silence and denigrate women’s experience and give permission for disrespect to continue. This is unacceptable. Preventing sexual violence is not just about empowering the victims, it is about directly addressing the sexist culture that encourages disrespect and sexual violence.

Many fear that naming inappropriate behaviours earlier in the process can to lead to polarization or separation of the sexes. This need not be the case. Although, it can cause discomfort for all involved, is this not worth it if it prevents rape and sexual abuse? Daring to step into this uncomfortable conversation can provide clarity, boundaries and a common basis on which to build.

Do we avoid talking to our children about not hurting others because we do not want to hurt their feelings? No. A good parent knows naming problematic behaviour and giving appropriate consequences helps guide behaviour. The same applies in our role as friend, co-worker, boss, health provider, reporter or politician. We can respectfully name what is inappropriate and reinforce appropriate consequences.

By agreeing to speak up in an open, respectful and pro-active manner, we grow and connect from this discomfort. By choosing to stop being silent witnesses and accomplices, we can move towards building healthy connections and communities based in real safety and respect.

How can you join in a respectful open discussion – in individual relationships, in your work and educational systems, as well as at the political and cultural level? How can you listen to the difficult stories of others without jumping to judgment or blame?

To start, I will share one of my own experiences in my next post.