Sexual violence is not ‘normal’
We have known for a long time now that girls and women often don’t report incidents of any type of sexual assault for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one of the saddest reasons, though, has been documented in a new study, “Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse,” to be published in an upcoming issue of “Gender & Society.”
The study found that girls and young women often don’t report instances of sexual violence because they see these incidents as “normal.” And after analyzing forensic interviews with 100 youths between the ages of three and 17 who may have been sexually assaulted, the study came to some pretty dismal conclusions.
It found that girls had “few available safe spaces,” as they were harassed anywhere, from parties to school buses and even on the playground (yes, the playground). They viewed boys’ sexually aggressive tendencies as “natural”: “It just happens,” one girl said; “They’re boys – that’s what they do,” said another.
One 13-year-old girl told an interviewer that boys will grab at girls and try to touch them, but she doesn’t see it as a “big thing because they do it to everyone.” Participants saw boys’ inappropriate behavior as an expected “rite of passage” and tried to give boys an out by placing their behavior in context. For example, one boy told a girl repeatedly that he was going to come to her house and rape her because she refused to let him touch her. The girl justified this by saying, “I guess he feels rejected,” and as the study points out, trivialized his threats by saying, “I know he’s just joking.”
And this is just the very tip of the iceberg. These scenarios point out really scary and disturbing patterns in the way girls think about sexual assault. It is not a boy’s rite of passage to tell a girl he’s going to rape her or to coerce her into the basement of a school and force her to kiss him. Too often, girls and young women feel pressured to put up with this behavior precisely because of how normalized it has become. To fix this, the focus must be put on what boys and men can do differently.
Obviously, most men and boys are not rapists or abusers, and this isn’t about making sweeping generalizations that all males are sexually violent. That, of course, isn’t true. But if you’ve ever taken a Sut Jhally course at UMass, you’ll know that groups who have power often get it and maintain it by keeping themselves hidden in the shadows.
This is why we most often associate the words “gender” with women, “race” with African Americans and “sexual orientation” with gays and lesbians. To force the “hidden population” of males into the light, we need to acknowledge that their sexual violence toward women is their own problem to fix.
It starts with accepting the fact that the phrase “boys will be boys” is not an excuse for violent behavior. Not only is this insulting to women, but it’s insulting to men who have to live in a society made up of people who believe men are unable to control themselves. Men are animals, they say, naturally predatory, inherently sexually violent and out of control; they just can’t help it.
That’s patently wrong and offensive, but it’s such a common way to rationalize male behavior that girls and women start to believe it themselves. So if a woman is ever put in a situation where a boy or man is forcibly touching her inappropriately, she won’t even realize she is, in fact, being sexually assaulted, even though she knows it makes her uncomfortable. This also has to do with the fact that, according to the study, these young girls were narrowly defining what constitutes “real” assault as things like forcible stranger rapes or rape as “intercourse only.”
Girls expected this behavior from boys and men, according to the study, and they felt it was their responsibility to protect themselves from it. Some would try to ignore it; others would walk with a friend in the hallways and to the bathroom, responding to the harassment with a “barrage of maneuvers, like avoidance and diverting attention.”
Female self-protection is a result of focusing on how women can change their behavior in order to avoid assault, although really we should be telling men that there is no excuse for sexual violence.
The study described many girls who felt like they had to acquiesce to boys’ sexually aggressive behavior “at the expense of their own feelings.” Society lets girls and women believe that no matter the circumstances, men have a right to their bodies regardless of what women think, feel or say. But it’s up to men to change their behavior, to change the parameters of masculinity so it doesn’t include claiming ownership over women’s bodies in an attempt to be a “real man.” The “inevitable reality” of sexual assault against women is exactly what makes it so dangerous, and it’s up to men to take a greater role in fighting it.
Jillian Correira is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.