Sexual Assault and Harassment: Part 1
The below text is copyright, “Broken Bodies – Broken Dreams: Violence against Women Exposed”:
“Debunking the Rape Myth
Common myths and assumptions related to sexual violence are shared the world over. They often reflect and reinforce social attitudes and customs that aggrandize male aggression while at the same time purporting female passivity. In many settings, sexual activity is popularly represented as a “battle of the sexes”, in which sexually driven men are expected to compel sexually hesitant women. The implicit message is that it is socially acceptable for sexual transactions between men and women to involve some degree of force. The explicit outcome is that the majority of victims of sexual violence around the world are female, and the majority of perpetrators are male.
Ideas about what constitutes “unacceptable” sexual behavior between men and women more often serve to protect the status quo of male dominance, such that “the volition, perceptions, and feelings of the woman or girl: are “amazingly absent from most cultural definitions of violence.” Determinations of the moral, legal or social permissibility of a given sex act are more likely to focus on the context in which it occurs – “who did it to whom and under what circumstance” – rather than on “the act itself or its impact of the woman.” This failure to consider the rights and wellbeing of women and girls is vividly demonstrated in nearly universal attitudes towards rape.
According to conventional assumptions prevalent across cultures, rape primarily happens in dark alleys or other remote locations, is committed by strangers and involves physical brutality. The act of rape is a social aberration and, therefore, a rare event. Following this logic is the notion that the majority of rapists are sociopaths – mentally ill men who have uncontrollable sexual urges. If they are not part of the “lunatic fringe”, then they are men who have been unnaturally provoked by sexually promiscuous women. In the latter model, responsibility to prevent rape falls to the potential victim, a sentiment illustrated in the recommendations of a Malaysian parliamentarian who argued, “Women should wear purdah [head to toe covering] to ensure that innocent men do not get unnecessarily excited by women’s bodies and are not unconsciously forced into becoming rapists. If women do now want to fall prey to such men, they should take the necessary precautions instead of forever blaming the men.
Such delimiting characterizations of sexual violence support impunity for the average rapist, not only because they blame the victim, but also because they disguise the global reality: that sexual assault, including rape, is more often perpetrated by someone known to the victim and occurs in her own home or in another familiar environment. Rape does not necessarily involve physical force, and the perpetrator need not be pathological. Evidence from countries around the world confirms that while the classic “stranger” rape does exist, it represents only the “tip of the iceberg” of sexual assault. Understanding the true extent of sexual violence is fraught with a number of challenges, not least of which is defining exactly what it entails.
Coercion, consent and choice
In the last 20 to 30 years, women’s rights activists have emphasized the basic human rights of women and girls – and the accountability of men and boys in respecting those rights – when differentiating between acceptable sexual contact and sexual violence. They suggest that force is not inevitable of control over women. Their work has informed contemporary definitions of sexual violence, which increasingly challenge conventional stereotypes that interpret “real” sexual violence only in the context of stranger rape.
In a 2002 global report on violence and health the World Health Organization (WHO) defined sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.” Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence involving bodily contact. Rape is a further delineating form of sexual assault that entails “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration – even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.
A key determinant of sexual violence within this definition is the issue of coercion – which may involve physical force but also can involve “psychological intimidation, blackmail or threats – for instance the threat of physical harm, of being dismissed from a job or of not obtaining a job that is sought. It may also occur when the person aggressed is unable to give consent – for instance, while drunk, drugged, asleep, or mentally incapable of understanding the situation.:
By emphasizing the concept of coercion rather than physical force, the WHO definition of sexual violence calls attention to the potentially wide range of behaviors that violate the rights of the victim. A definition based solely or even primarily on coercion presents challenges, however, because what amounts to coercion may be highly contested by those involved: A victim may experience behaviors as highly coercive when the perpetrator does not. To overcome ambiguities inherent in interpretations of coercion, many women’s rights activists have stressed the primacy of consent.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has described consent as the “legal dividing line between rape and sexual intercourse.” Another expert explained that a definition of sexual violence based on consent “recognizes and ratifies a simple principle … [which is] our personal sovereignty. We have the right not to be acted upon unless we wish to be acted upon and communicate that wish to the actor. Our silence is not our permission.”
Other feminist theorists prefer the concept of choice to that of consent because “it does not implicitly assume that men initiate all sexual overtures.” The language of choice, even more so than consent, underscores and promotes female autonomy in sexual relations.
Choice is the exception, rather than the rule, however, for many women and girls around the world. A teenage girl in South Africa observed, “Forced sex is the norm. It is the way people interact sexually.” In qualitative research in Zimbabwe, young women acknowledged their powerlessness in sexual relationships: “A woman can refuse, but then this woman will run the risk that she will be forced into sex. I would like to change it, but it cannot be done because a woman needs to follow the man.”
Even when choice is clearly absent, many women and girls who suffer sexual assault still may not view their victimization as rape because their experience is not represented in hegemonic definitions of sexual violence. Based on encounters reported by a national sample of college women in the United States, researchers concluded that from one-fifth to one-quarter of all college women are at risk of an attempted or completed rape during their college years. However, for those respondents whose experiences were categorized as completed rape according to the standard definition used by the researchers, only 46.5 percent believed the incident to be rape. Forty-nine percent said it wasn’t rape, and 4.7 percent said they did not know.
Any attempts to study sexual violence must understand this important distinction. As one women’s rights advocate noted, “Just because a woman doesn’t call it rape, doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel violated.”