BREAKING THE MYTHS AROUND SEXUAL VIOLENCE
When it comes to controversial issues, many tend to be hushed over and not talked about. One such issue is sexual violence. While it remains a very prominent problem in our society and university campuses, the lack of knowledge surrounding the issue has given way to several misconceptions and myths that only help to perpetuate the issue.
“Sexual violence is an umbrella term for anything that makes someone uncomfortable. It includes comments, leering and stalking,” Ellie Donohue-Miller the Support Services Coordinator at the Brock Student Sexual Violence Support Centre.
The stigma that surrounds sexual violence makes it extremely difficult for victims to come forward and report it to the police, or even just talk about it with someone they trust. Through the many misconceptions, society has created a very thick layer of shame around being a victim of sexual violence.
Often times, even when a person does come forward, the incident is hushed up and only treated behind closed doors.
This is no different at Brock which, according to some, does not properly handle sexual violence reports. Although the Human Rights and Equity office releases annual reports about harassment incidences, these reports used to be broken down into different categories including harassment of sex or gender.
Since 2011/2012 however, the reports no longer break them down. As well, the position of Human Rights and Equity Advisor was only just recently filled at the end of last semester. Before that, the position was empty and the Department of Human Resources was also responsible for handling any incidents.
According to Margot Francis, an associate professor in the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies, Brock currently has no policy dealing with sexual violence, although it is in the process of developing one.
For Isobel Grey (name changed to protect privacy), a graduate student last year at Brock, she reported an incident that involved a faculty member to Campus Security who then passed it to Human Resources. According to her, although she was happy with the results of the investigation, she did not feel supported and was sometimes even mocked during the process by the university staff in charge of handling the incident.
“I have been instructed to not talk about the outcome of that investigation,” said Grey. “To me, this seemed like they were trying to silence me. When I inquired about why I would not be able to share the conclusions of what they claimed to be a fair and unbiased investigation, I was told it was because they did not want it to be ‘improperly publicized’.”
Grey also highlights what she believes are some of the biggest barriers that prevent more victims from coming forward.
“Intimidation, especially in an environment where you are surrounded by your peers. If you doubt yourself, then it is understandable that others may doubt you as well and that can be scary for people, especially if the person is someone you know, you share classes with, or have mutual friends,” said Grey.
A lot of this intimidation comes from the stigma and misconceptions surrounding sexual violence. Some of the most common myths that are very common in our society and unfortunately, often believed by women themselves, are the behavioural myth, the racial myth and the colonial myth.
THE BEHAVIOURAL MYTH
One of the biggest problems when it comes to sexual assault, is that a very small percentage of cases are actually reported. According to Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), only eight per cent of sexual assault occurrences are reported to the police. Of the victims that did not report, half of them said it was because “it was not important enough”.
This feeling of fear and the stigma around sexual assault are spread by a number of myths, including the behavioural and consent myth. Unfortunately, these myths are so powerful and prevalent that women believe them as well.
The behavioural myth stems around the idea that a victim of sexual violence “was asking for it” by behaving in a certain way or dressing in a certain manner.
“There’s a lot of shame and self-blame involved with sexual violence,” said Donohue-Miller. “It’s so sad to see people who have been violated and have had their power taken away to then blame themselves.”
The black and white line is that if there is no enthusiastic consent, it is considered sexual harassment or rape. However, due to the double standards in the media and the continuing societal pressure to not talk about sexual issues, this line becomes very blurred.
Donna Christie, the Public Education Coordinator at the Niagara Region Sexual Assault Centre (NRSAC), talked about how the ever-present media is creating a double standard through its strong influence on young women.
“The media tells you to dress, look and act in a certain way. Women are still being shown as sexualized things for men and that’s really powerful and hard to avoid. However, if you do what the media says and then you’re sexually assaulted, then it becomes your fault and you’re considered stupid [for being influenced by the media],” said Christie.
Pornography is another big issue, especially since younger and younger children are being exposed to it through greater and unrestricted access on wireless devices and smartphones.
“For boys, there’s your education of how to treat women and how they should react,” said Christie. “For girls watching, they think ‘that’s what I should accept’.”
These attitudes towards sexual violence often make it very hard for both perpetrators and victims to even know that a certain incidence is actually considered sexual violence. In turn, the victim suffers alone, unsure as to how to react to what happened. Even worse is when victims begin to think that those kinds of actions are normal and to be expected.
However, a victim of sexual violence is never at fault. The risk comes not from internal behaviour, but from the external environment.
The WAVAW website states that, “Any woman of any age and physical type in almost any situation can be sexually assaulted. The number one thing convicted rapists report looking for in a victim is vulnerability, not appearance. This myth takes the responsibility of the rape away from the rapist and shifts it to the victim.”
For students, this vulnerability is increased through the party scene and the bar scene. Alcohol and drugs are very large factors in sexual violence incidences, especially among the student population.
“People think that they can’t report [a sexual violence case] because they’ve been drinking,” said Christie. “But if there’s no consent, it’s rape.”
“There’s a lot of myths around consent,” said Donohue-Miller. “If it’s not an enthusiastic ‘yes’, or if they’re drunk, then it’s not a ‘yes’.”
The attitude of society towards sexual violence needs to shift from a blaming-the-victim standpoint. The myths that are created by this attitude only increase the issue and make it even harder for victims to work through the traumatic incidence and continue with their lives.
THE RACIAL MYTH
For racialized women in North America, that is, women of a different race or ethnicity, the risk of being sexually assaulted is much higher than for white women. Statistical analysis have charted out the level of risk by creating different categories for women and the most at risk are young, racialized women and women with disabilities.
“If you’re at the intersection of several categories, you’ll be more at risk than some,” said Francis.
The myths that surround racialized women are varied and many, but they stem from a superior white attitude which simultaneously hypersexualizes and desexualizes these women in order to pretend that any sexual violence is natural.
Kattawe Henry, a fourth-year Sociology student at Brock, has done extensive research in this area, especially around sexual violence of black women.
“It’s the idea that racialized bodies are more sexualized and that their bodies are up for consumption,” said Henry. “It’s like [black women] are that tester – to get it out of [white men’s] systems and so that they can act on their desires without having to commit.”
The hypersexualization and desexualization of racialized women comes from racist attitudes that assign a sexual stereotype to each race. For example, Hispanic women are seen as fiery, Asian women as submissive, and Black women as raw. These stereotypes both limit and exaggerate the sexual appeal of these women. They are vaunted as desirable objects – glorified for their bodies, yet at the same time stripped of all their humanity.
The danger of this myth is that this kind of racist thinking makes sexual violence towards racialized women seem okay by the perpetrator. By treating these women as sex objects, it is no longer considered rape because they are placed at an inferior, less human level.
Henry herself has been in a situation where harassment towards her automatically became sexual in nature because of the colour of her skin. Henry was working on a group project with another female and male classmate and the two girls ended up doing all of the work. When they told the professor, the professor gave the male student a zero on the project. Angry at the girls, the male student started sending them text messages, but the messages directed at Henry included sexually harassing terms.
In response, Henry went to the department and senior administration and told them that she was being sexually harassed. Initially, the reply to her complaint was immediate and they started looking into the issue. However, when Henry mentioned that she thought the comments might be racially motivated as well, she claims she never heard back again from anyone.
“It’s like there were too many issues at once, as if [the school] can handle sexism but not racism and sexism at once,” said Henry. “This makes it seem like it’s okay to sexually harass racialized women.”
It is clear that the systemic issues of racism are still a big problem, especially when it comes to sexual violence and how women are treated. Another issue is that the policies that are created are often made by people that are not diversely representative.
“It’s important for the campus to acknowledge intersectionality and how that applies to every student’s experience. [Brock] needs to acknowledge how minority groups don’t feel represented and that their voices don’t come into consideration,” said Henry.
It is a sad realization that almost two hundred years after slavery was abolished in Canada and the British Empire, the idea that racialized women are just objects for sexual pleasure still persists. This myth not only perpetuates racist attitudes, it also continues to marginalize certain people in our society that have every right to feel safe and included.
THE COLONIAL MYTH
In the case of Aboriginal women, Canada’s sexual assault website states that 57 per cent of aboriginal women have been sexually abused. This statistic is only a small part of a greater issue that Canada is currently facing, as more and more reports of missing and murdered Aboriginal women are coming to light.
According to the Government of Canada’s website, “Indigenous women and girls in Canada are disproportionately affected by all forms of violence.”
The racist attitudes towards First Nations, Métis and Inuit stem in large part from the colonial myth, established during the European conquest of North America and still continued in the rhetoric of history today.
The colonial myth, or the myth of nation building, comes from the idea that the first Europeans to come to North America had a right to claim this land and set up the structures for a new country. This was done in complete disregard to the people that were already living here and with no respect to their culture or way of life.
“The only way to get rid of the Aboriginal structure was to destroy the family structure,” said Judith Knight, the Aboriginal Academic Support Assistant at Brock. “The colonial system needed to remove women from positions of power.”
Aboriginal women had always had a very influential and powerful role in their society. It was they who made any decisions concerning the children and future generations. In order to degrade the women, the colonist society began to represent them as bad mothers, which gave them an excuse to take away their children and put them into residential school or with white families. They also refused to give jobs to Aboriginal women.
“There was no escape route. [Aboriginal women] were funneled into this never-ending horrid lifestyle,” said Knight.
Today, this myth continues in the language used in history books today. Written from the perspective of a white scholar, the rhetoric uses phrases such as “discovered a New World” or “came to a wide, empty land”. This kind of white-centric history story-telling reinforces ideas of white superiority which are translated today into acts of sexual violence against Aboriginal women.
“White entitlement to the land led to an entitlement of bodies,” said Francis.
This kind of racist thinking leads to the idea that certain women, like Aboriginal women, are “unrapeable”. That is, any act of sexual violence towards them cannot be perceived of as rape because the perpetrator does not see it as wrong.
Knight has several personal stories when she herself or a close friend experienced sexual harassment. Recently, her best friend’s daughter met a man on a dating site who claimed he was a doctor and promised to marry her and buy her a new car and a new house. After some investigation, it turned out that the man had lied and was in fact a member of a sex-trade organization that was looking for new Aboriginal women.
“We’re not valued in society because of colonial attitudes and women get the bottom of the barrel,” said Knight. “Originally [Aboriginal women] were highly valued in their culture and then the colonial system turned that upside down.”
This attitude is still very much in place today and Aboriginal women throughout Canada are having a hard time living their lives without constantly being faced with the negative perceptions that have been falsely created around them. There seems to be a basic lack of respect in society that prevents the systems in place from changing and trying to make the world a better place.