Chances are, you know someone like me who was sexually abused or even raped.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. As someone who has experienced firsthand what sexual violence can do to a life, I make every effort to change societal attitudes on this vital topic.
Sexual assault is prevalent in America, just as it is around the world. At some point during her life, at least one of every three women in the U.S. is physically or sexually abused. One out of every five high school girls is physically and/or sexually abused by someone she is dating. Four women are murdered every day by an intimate male partner.
When a woman is raped, or when a young girl of 11 is gang-raped, as happened recently, the first assumption is that she was "asking for it." Was her skirt too short? Was she wearing too much makeup? Was she drunk? Did she lead him on? Our tendency is to blame the victim.
So, what is our role in making this kind of violent behavior possible?
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (www.nsvrc.org) has identified five norms that shape our behavior and attitudes surrounding sexual violence:
- The objectification and oppression of women. Despite the many strides that women have made, they are still not respected and treated as equals in many areas.
- The high value of having power over others. This is the basic mindset that more is better and that he who has the power to order others around can do as he will, including with women.
- A tolerance and glorification of aggression and the way victims are blamed. Check out the ads, movies, TV shows and video games that glamorize sexualize violence, and the many media stories about rape that point to the woman as being at fault.
- The traditional view of manhood that includes domination and control. Although sexual violence is not "normal" behavior, there is a sense of acceptance and complacency about it. After all, boys will be boys.
- Notions of privacy within the family that foster silence and secrecy. The number of women who have been sexually assaulted is much larger than reported because of these beliefs about the need to protect the family at all costs.
As long as we hold these unspoken beliefs, as long as we continue to tolerate these attitudes and actions as somehow inevitable, women will continue to be treated as property, as lesser than, as objects to be used and abused.
So what can you do?
Most importantly, examine your own beliefs. You may be surprised to discover, as I was, that you subscribe to some of these "societal norms," even unconsciously. Were you trained by your family to believe that what happens in the family stays in the family? Was your brother permitted far more latitude in his behavior than you were? Do you treat your sons differently from your daughters?
Look at the way you are affected by the culture. Do you flaunt a lot of cleavage because that's the "look" these days? Do you get pumped up watching action thrillers or murder mysteries? Are you or your partner into porn?
Do you accept an unequal situation at work? Is compensation in your field equal between the sexes? Why not? Do you put up with sexual harassment at your place of work?
The most vital belief to examine is the one that we are separate, each of us alone on our path through life. It's time for all of us -- men and women alike -- to really grasp our inherent unity, our oneness. When we look at the world from the perspective of oneness, violence against another becomes impossible, because there is no "other" to have dominion over, to control, to assault or batter or rape.
So what I'm asking for is this: an expansion of consciousness, an opening of the heart, a radical rethinking of our norms. I hope you'll help make that happen!