About (the threat of) sexual assault and violence

By Charissa Dechène

Growing up we all socialize differently. However, I think a majority of girls hear the same things about how to act and behave (except maybe in the few matriarchal societies in the world). As a girl I was taught that I should always be careful in my interaction with boys (and men), I should dress ‘appropriately’, should not behave ‘provocative’ and most importantly, I should know how to defend myself. Especially for women (of any age) it is considered to be dangerous if you go out on the street in the early morning and at night when you are alone. Because, if you are a part of the world that is female, the most dangerous threat are men.

By the way, this blog is NOT an attack on men, but a critique on our patriarchal society and the ways in which socio-cultural constructed notions about gender, femininity and masculinity can affect how society views sexual violence toward, especially, women. These notions also make it more difficult for men to admit or raise awareness about sexual violence towards them.

Our society does not teach not to rape, but not to be raped.

What we teach girls and women does not prevent rape. If it did women wouldn’t get raped or encounter other forms of sexual violence and harassment. Most of society and media teaches that if you identify as female you should constantly be aware of your surroundings, your behaviour and your appearance. There are even anti-rape preventions available that are supposedly help fight of rapists. Which often makes me so angry, because women are never responsible for getting raped or sexually assaulted and shouldn’t have to take precautions to protect their body. Rather, we should focus more on teaching boys and men that girls and women are not objects, but human beings. This was also stated by Kurt Cobain 24 years ago, who also spoke his mind about issues such as homophobia.

Teaching girls from early childhood how to behave, how to walk, how to talk, how to do anything, did not prevent millions of women, including myself, from encountering the horrific experience of your body being violated.
Which is something women and men all over the world are asking awareness for throughout recent history:

(Source: The Guardian) Canadian women protesting in Toronto against rape, abortion, and pay inequality in 1979. Photograph: © Bettmann/CORBIS

(Source: India Times) Protest outside the Supreme Court, New Delhi, to demand the re-opening of the Mathura rape case, 1980.

(Source: Tumblr) Protest sign stressing the way women dress, behave, drink and say does not determine she will be raped.

Source: Rutgers
According to UN Women, 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence.
A recent study of Rutgers WPF showed that in the Netherlands 33,3% of the women and 7,7% of the men in the country has experienced some form of sexual violence against them.

Although creating a dialogue about sexual violence still seems to be difficult – because it is a subject where people generally do not want to talk about or feel comfortable talking about – it is a subject that should never lose people’s attention.

Sexual violence, or the threat thereof is an issue that is a part of a lot of women’s everyday life experiences. Lately it seems like more and more people are speaking up about their own experiences, Just last year the #YesAllWomen on Twitter revealed women’s many ways in which they have encountered sexual harassment, rape and misogyny in their lives. Last year an Instagram account created by Alexandra Tweten called “Bye Felipe” also shows the many harassment and insults women get online for saying ‘no’ to a man. Although I do not agree with the use of the profile picture and name of the man writing the often hurtful, degrading and sexist comments when being told no or when not getting a response in a certain amount of time, I do think this account gives room for thought. The printscreens shared on the account show that a lot of men turn hostile when turned down or not getting a fast enough response. Often turning to name-calling, insulting her body and threatening physical and sexual violence. Another online project raising awareness and fighting for social and political change is “Where Love Is Illegal”. This witness change project uses the social media platforms Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr as a space where stories of LGBTI violence, discrimination and persecution are shared. Project Unbreakable also raises awareness by giving survivors a voice. The founder of the project, Grace Brown, started the project four years ago by photographing survivors who held up posters on which they quoted their attackers.

In the 1970’s second wave feminists started using the concept of “rape culture” to address the normalization of sexual violence against women and that rape is not sex, but an act of violence. Rape is about power, which is why it is used as a weapon of war for centuries.
In mass media and popular culture we see our societies notions about sex and sexuality. These notions affect our perspectives about these issues, often resulting in double standards. Boys and men are encouraged to have girlfriends, kiss and explore their sexuality. Girls and women are often slut-shamed if they do they do the same things. Moreover, female victims of sexual assault are often blamed of their assault by being questioned what they were wearing, what they had been drinking and if they are sure they did not actually want to have sex.  Just recently we have seen how the shaming of women who were sexual assaulted and not recognizing or believing their stories, affected 35 women (and possibly more) who were afraid to talk about their sexual assault by Bill Cosby.

Although rape and sexual assault are common subjects in films and series, the horrific and traumatic experience of rape is often not showed. Sexual violence is a ‘go-to plot-twist’ that makes a story interesting.  But, our gaze is being led away from the horrific thing that is happening by a camera that usually moves away from the scene and leaves the actual rape to the viewers imagination, or as in some scenes in “Game of Thrones” it is something that happens in the background, or when it happens to a main character it is quickly forgotten. A recent episode in which the viewer gets a very real and devastating look at how the experience of rape and its aftermath is for the victim is portrayed in episode 10 of season 3 of the series “Orange Is The New Black”. In the episode, the viewer is forced, as the woman on screen, to endure the rape.

(Source: Pinterest)
When looking at the history of the portrayal of women, or rather women’s bodies, they are generally depicted and viewed as objects to which men are entitled to. Thereby constructing women as an object of sexual spectacle. The American feminist philosopher Susan Bordo has elaborated on how women were associated with the ‘body’ whereas men were associated with the ‘mind’ throughout history (1993). This notion about women has contributed to the acceptance and therefore justification of viewing and thinking of women as property, objects and commodities. Bordo argued that

“The cost of such projections to women is obvious […] the body is the negative term, and if woman is the body, then women are that negativity, whatever it may be: distraction from knowledge, seduction away from God, capitulation to sexual desire, violence or aggression, failure of will, even death.” (Bordo 1993: 5)

In John Berger’s “Way of Seeing” (1972) traditional Western cultural aesthetics are being criticized by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. In the second episode of the series, Berger elaborates on the fact that women are mostly painted and visualized as a subject of male idealisation or desire. Berger stresses that media culture shapes our perceptions of gender politics and women as object.

“To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

Behind every glance at a woman, there is a judgement. By herself, by men, by other women. Visual images of women in mass media, as they are in oil paintings, are mostly made to appeal to his sexuality and has nothing to do with her sexuality.

To accomplish change there has to be more awareness and understanding of the impact that sexual violence has on somebody. I believe mass media and popular culture can, and should, have an important part in creating social change towards these issues. But also education in schools (starting from elementary school) should be more engaged in issues around consent, sexuality and sexual diversity. Rape, sexual harassment and violence are not freak ‘accidents’. If you have a mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, friend, neighbour or co-worker who identifies as female or LGBTQI, it is highly likely that they encountered with some form of sexual assault in their lives.

Also, joking about rape is never funny, they are insulting, rude and it does not contribute to the recognization of the seriousness of sexual assault.

If you want to contact me, please leave a comment or you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram.

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