July 05, 2012

Preventing Sexual Assault

clip_image002By Sally Raskoff

What have you heard about preventing rape and sexual assault?

Most of the time, we learn those rules of self-defense that are mostly taught to women, such as not walking alone or at night or not accepting an open beverage. These rules are often “nots” and are framed as behaviors that people (women) should do to avoid being raped or assaulted.

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Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Sexual assault and rape are still very much underreported and there are many myths about what these crimes entail. They are crimes in which people are using sex as a weapon. The U.S. has some of the highest rates of sexual assault aside from countries in which genocide and “ethnic cleansing” have made use of rape a war tactic.

Focusing on sexual assault as an individual’s problem does nothing to effectively address the issue and reduce the rates in society.

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The good news is that instead of seeing sexual assault as the responsibility of the survivor or victim, many programs have been shifting their view to include prevention focusing on the perpetrators of such violence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now uses an ecological model to understand how individuals are embedded and influenced by relationships which are, in turn, are part of communities and also societies.

Realizing that sexual assault does not occur in an individualized vacuum can help us move toward more effective programs since it provides a more holistic view of the phenomenon.

On the other hand, is this going to be an easy fix? It is a good first step to acknowledge that sexual assault exists in a stratified society in which communities may perpetuate myths due to a generalized lack of knowledge or understanding. However, how does this change in understanding find its way into people’s awareness and behavior?

I have two examples of how people have been expressing this shift in awareness.

One is a post on the blog, “Can You Relate?” in which the usual list of “What not to do” is aimed at the people who sexually assault others, not at those who are assaulted. The list starts with “1. Don’t put drugs in women’s drinks.”

The reaction my students had to this list brought to mind their reaction to “The Heterosexual Questionnaire,” created by Martin Rochlin. Both turn the tables on how questions and issues—in these examples about sexual orientation and sexual assault— are typically framed. Rochlin used questions commonly asked of non-heterosexuals to points out the absurdity of such questions and expose heterosexism.

My students had the same reaction at first to the “Can You Relate?” questions in that they thought they sounded ridiculous. Upon further thought, however, they realized that calling out the perpetrators of sexual violence on that behavior was appropriate even at the same time it sounds absurd.

In Project Unbreakable, survivors of sexual violence create a poster using words their attacker said during the attack that is then photographed and placed on their site. The site is described as an art project and has links to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network sexual assault hotline. It is a very powerful set of images and it underscores the need to address both sides of the situation – both survivor and perpetrator.

Sexual assault continues to be a problem for individuals and society. As we continue to do more research to understand the phenomenon and see how it is embedded in our societal structure, it is imperative to figuring out how to change the individuals and societal features that perpetuate it.

What other ways have you seen a shift in our societal practices about sexual violence? Do we still have more focus on individuals or is there more of a sociological understanding that the personal is, indeed political?

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