Recently there has been a surge of reported incidents of gang rape of girls and young women across the globe. I question what the staggering levels of assault tell us about our cultural values, and I wonder what shift needs to happen, for our society to respect and hold sacred that which is feminine.
John Stoltenberg -- feminist activist, scholar, former managing editor of AARP magazine, and author of books including Refusing to Be a Man -- says that violence against women has gotten worse in recent years: "A pattern of disrespect, disparagement, and degradation has been increasingly promoted by pornography, the primary sex education medium for boys and young men," he explains. With the Internet making pornography available around the clock, he continues, issues of sexual assault have become "much, much worse."
Clearly, pornography stimulates men visually and audially. By operating in a vacuum that is devoid of human contact, however, I believe that pornography cuts off men from the powerful spectrum of sensual, emotional, spiritual, and yes, even primal physical sensations that accompany erotic human interaction. Through pornography, men not only objectify women but also objectify themselves. It therefore makes sense that the consumption of pornography may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which some men may act out through violence.
"Things are unimaginably worse now than the pre-Internet time," says Stoltenberg. "The burgeoning of Internet pornography has conditioned and desensitized the next generations in ways that have already begun to manifest in younger and younger perpetrators of increasingly pornography-modeled sexual violence."
Incidents of brutal gang rape always have existed, says Margarita Alcantara, LAc -- an acupuncturist, Reiki master, and social justice activist -- but they have become more prevalent in recent years, as a form of backlash against women's growing autonomy and power. Men are feeling powerless, she continues, as our society shifts energetically from the Sacred Male to the Sacred Female. "We are bound to find that some men may be acting out of fear of that shift, whether they are conscious of it or not," she says.
"We are in a huge time of transition," concurs Helen Fisher, Ph.D. -- a biological anthropology professor at Rutgers University, chief scientific advisor to the Internet dating site Chemistry.com, and author of books including The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior. "We are shedding 10,000 years of our agricultural background and moving forward to being the kind of women and men we were 100,000 years ago."
Prior to the Agricultural Revolution, Fisher notes, women were just as economically, socially, and sexually powerful as men. With the advent of agriculture, women lost their roles as gatherers and increasingly became relegated to hearth and home. As a result, women's power crumbled. With the Industrial Revolution however, change was afoot once again. Women piled into the job market and regained long-lost economic power -- and with it, social and sexual power.
Sexual violence undermines that power, and as a somatic therapist, Alcantara has seen the devastating results. Survivors of sexual assault have classic PTSD symptoms, along with a laundry list of health issues.
I have witnessed the impact first-hand, as numerous women who attend my retreats are survivors. In some cases, the abuse seems embedded so deeply on the cellular level that it is extremely challenging for these women to access their hearts' invincibility. I have found, however, that by breathing into and with the heart, staying with the intense emotions that arise, and doing this work with a safe and loving practitioner, survivors can, over time, release their feelings of shame, reclaim and love their bodies, and get back in touch with their sacredness. The path of healing, however, can be long and fraught with anguish.
"When a woman suffers sexual violence, it's a deep violation of her personhood and her integrity on every level," says earth-based spiritual leader Starhawk, a global justice activist and author of books including The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. Sexual assault, she says, sends the message that the victim is worthless. In addition, it attacks the sacredness of sexuality. In the Goddess religion, Starhawk explains, sex is a powerful, magical, and deeply spiritual act of union and ecstasy. Sexual assault is therefore "an attempt to separate" the sexual from the sacred. "It's a lot harder for a woman who has been the victim of sexual violence to connect with her own natural erotic system, her own natural sexual energy."
This theme of separation -- from each other and from ourselves -- continues as Starhawk discusses the connection between war and sexual violence: "Rape is not some anomaly of war," she says. "It's integral to how men were conditioned to give up their own autonomy, their own power, their own decisions about life and death, to follow orders and become soldiers."
It is counterintuitive, she notes, to stay in place when a throng of men with spears and chariots are bearing down on you. The human instinct is to run wherever possible. "How did the military condition men to stay in place?" she asks. "They split ideas of men and women." Women were defined as cowardly, "the most shameful thing a man could be," she says. According to the narrative, women ran, while men stayed and fought. As a reward, men received the spoils of war, which included the women. Meanwhile, as acquired property, women lost their autonomy and personhood.
In other words, to be violent means to lose heart -- to compartmentalize our emotions, go numb, and kill off our natural instincts of empathy and compassion. To be a good soldier, Starhawk sums it up, "You have to cut off a lot of your ability to feel ... If you no longer can feel your body, if your whole value for the world is as a weapon serving other men's ends, it's a lot easier to use your penis as a weapon. I don't think it's good for men or women."
Vision is a product of the heart, as are faith, creativity, and courage. It takes heart to visualize a world without sexual violence and to speak up, challenge social norms, and implement change that moves us toward this vision. The heart holds our ideals -- for which we are willing to do risky and self-sacriﬁcing acts that no reason would allow. By strengthening our hearts, we empower ourselves to create a heart-centered world -- where the feminine and masculine are individually honored and united as a sacred whole.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.