As we approach Sexual Assault Awareness month in April, I feel even more of a desire than usual to talk about sexual violence. One issues with sexual violence is that when we don’t talk about it, the cycle of guilt and shame for survivors continues. By talking about sexual violence and naming it, we can begin to take away the stigma associated with it.
Denim Day is a campaign that was created after an assault that happened in Italy in the 1990s. An 18-year old girl taken by her 45-year old driving instructor during her driving lesson, to an isolated road where he pulled her out of the car, removed her jeans, and raped her. She reported the rape and her driving instructor was arrested and prosecuted. He was convicted of rape and sentenced to jail. He then appealed the conviction, saying that it was consensual sex and there was no way he raped her because her jeans were too tight and she would have had to remove them herself and by doing so, the sex became consensual. The Italian Supreme Court overturned the conviction and the perpetrator was released. Enraged by the verdict, the women in the Italian Parliament protested by wearing jeans on the steps of the Supreme Court. This became international news and the first Denim Day in LA was held in April of 1999. Denim Day has helped create a platform where we can talk about destructive messages out there around sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape. These platforms can help create a safe space to talk about things like victim blaming and rape culture.
Sexual Violence, Not Just A Women’s Issue
One issue with rape culture is that it has put a lot of emphasis on survivors to act in a certain way in order to avoid being assaulted. Questions like “Well what was she wearing?” perpetuate rape culture and shifts the blame from perpetrator to survivor. In a recent conversation with a male colleague, I asked him for his perspective on rape culture from a male’s point of view. He shared that he feels guilty and ashamed as a man for the role men have played in perpetuating rape culture. He reinforced that sexual violence is a men’s issue as much as it is a women’s issue because sometimes men are the only ones who can challenge other men in these ways. Rape culture will not change until it becomes unacceptable socially to engage in sexual harassment and sexual assault. Lets imagine two different responses to a scenario.
Scenario: Five men are sitting around drinking beer and playing poker. Jon, one of the men, makes a comment about his new secretary’s breasts. He says “Yeah I told her she’s got a nice rack”
Response 1: The other 4 men laugh it off and move on
Response 2: One of the 4 other men, Steve, looks at Jon and says “Whoa, that’s really inappropriate and creates an unsafe environment for your secretary. Have you thought about that may have felt for her?”
My hope would be that by Steve calling out Jon, it creates an environment where Jon may think twice next time about what is coming out of his mouth. When we laugh things off and assume “Boys will be boys”, this perpetuates rape culture.
Another point to mention here is that survivors are not always female. If we look at the Catholic Church or the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, these are cases where powerful institutions failed to protect children. Did Joe Paterno meet his legal obligation to alert his superiors of allegations? Perhaps. Is that enough? Most people would say no. Because then what? People are aware and they let the abuse continue anyway.
Examples of Rape Culture
- Victim Blaming- shifting the responsibility from the perpetrator to the survivor
- Tolerating sexual harassment
- Sexually explicit jokes
- Assumptions about rape- i.e. Only promiscuous women get raped
- Body shaming
- Assuming rape is a women’s issue
How Can We Combat Rape Culture?
- Avoid language that objectifies women
- Hold abusers accountable
- Be an active bystander
- Discuss consent with partners prior to sexual activity
- Engage in Discussions about the media’s messages around sexual violence
- Believe survivors
Caring about these issues is not enough. Breaking the silence is essential if we are going to create cultural shifts around sexual assault and sexual violence. It’s harder to do the right thing than it is to do what everyone else is doing but in order to shift the paradigm, we need to embrace discussions around sexual violence rather than pretend these issues don’t exist.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.