Jill Gruenberg: Guest opinion
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
A recent community-outreach event caused me to think about how we educate the youth in our community on the topic of sexual assault. This issue always rises in my consciousness when the calendar reminds me that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
It’s not that I’m not grateful for the national designation that helps shine a light on one of the most hidden epidemics facing young girls, adolescents, women and, yes, even as many as one in six young boys. It’s just that I can’t wrap my head around the fact that an offense that affects one in four women in the U.S., and significantly more in certain parts of the world, doesn’t warrant a greater level of outrage and subsequent action among the general population.
At the local Girls to Women, Women to Girls conference on April 12, I was asked to briefly share information and statistics about teenage sexual abuse with the entire eighth-grade female student body of Aspen Middle School and the Aspen Community School who had read the book “Speak,” by Laurie Hales Anderson. “Speak” is the story of a young high school student who is raped at a party, and then is ostracized by her peers when she calls the police but chooses not to reveal that she was raped.
The story accurately captures the shame and self-blame that most sexual-assault survivors experience. Think about the questions that a person who has been sexually assaulted will encounter: “What were you wearing?” “How much did you drink?” “Why did you go to their apartment?” “Why were you flirting or making out with them if you didn’t want to have sex?” “Why did you call them after the assault?” “Why didn’t you tell the police?” “Why didn’t you yell ‘STOP’?” “Why didn’t you fight back?” or “You’re a man – how could you have really been raped?”
Sadly, the list goes on. The irony is that almost nowhere in the equation of the aftermath of a sexual assault, and particularly a date rape, is the perpetrator asked the most basic question: “Why did you assume that the sex was consensual?”
Ultimately, “Speak” is a story of redemption in which the young woman regains both her voice and a more authentic sense of her identity – not as an invincible teenage girl who avoids suffering and trauma in her life but as a girl who regains her power by not being afraid to speak out and incorporating her trauma into her self-expression. For our young girls, I believe that reading “Speak” was a profound experience.
Yet as I rattled off the frightening statistics of how all of them will either experience a sexual assault themselves or know intimately someone who has (a friend, sister, mother), I felt conflicted by the message I delivered. I tried to say, “I’m not telling you this to make you live in fear or be depressed and discouraged at the thought of what being a young woman means in a rape culture.” I attempted to convey that knowing how common it is could help them to be aware, to support one another if it happens to someone they know, and not to be afraid to speak out and seek support for themselves or others.
Yet as I lay awake that night, I contemplated the message that was delivered. Was it more discouraging than empowering? Was it just as subtly victim-blaming as the typical societal response? Did it serve to perpetuate the myth that if individuals just do the right thing and avoid the dangers that exist, then they won’t be raped? If this is the message we are unwittingly telling our young people, then no wonder they feel that it must somehow be their fault if they are sexually assaulted.
The simple truth is that most of our efforts in the area of sexual-assault education and prevention center around the concept of risk reduction. At its core, risk reduction presumes that if only the victim of a crime had acted differently, the likelihood of the crime being committed would be significantly less.
Think of all of the societal messages and subsequent actions taken by young women: Don’t walk home alone at night. Don’t accept drinks that might be drugged from strangers. Carry a rape whistle or mace. Learn self-defense so as to be able to fend off an attack. Modify the way you dress so as not to invite unwanted sexual attention.
Risk reduction is an important component to safety, and I don’t want to give the impression that I discount its value. Yet it is only one piece of the solution of lessening sexual violence.
When will we as a community ask the questions that hold perpetrators and bystanders accountable to the same standards: “Why did you think it was OK to have sex when they were too drunk to consent?” “Why did you think that when they said ‘yes’ after saying ‘no’ 10 times that they truly consented?” “Why did you assume that because of how they were dressed it meant that they wanted to have sex?” “Why did you think that because they were silent or didn’t fight or scream, that that was the same as saying ‘yes’?” “Why did you watch how your friend was acting toward that individual and not call them out?” or “Why did you feel that it was OK to violate another individual’s trust?”
These are the questions that will truly move the dial in decreasing sexual violence because these are the questions that hold all of us (victims, offenders, bystanders and responders) accountable. There are always opportunities to work to reduce sexual victimization, not just by teaching potential victims how to avoid the crime but by redefining the climate in which sexual violence has been allowed to take root and thrive.
Ultimately, the goal that I hope we all strive toward is not only to educate our children and ourselves so that our own daughters and sons are less likely to be sexually assaulted but to reduce the risk for all because we have reduced the societal tolerance for the behavior that underlies the crime. And this will only occur when we have changed the attitudes of those who might have the power to actually stop themselves or others from knowingly or unknowingly committing a sexual assault.
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