Through the Lenses
At Saint Ursula Academy, the modern problem of sexual assault is incorporated into several courses. Recently in Social Justice, Mrs. Woodall’s junior class had a small group discussion about the idea of dehumanization; students noted that dehumanization is seen in rape and sexual assault. Mrs. Williams’ Health class dedicates three days solely to rape. Women Helping Women visits health classes and spends three days discussing healthy relationships, consent, and bystander intervention. Rape and assault are perhaps not typically analyzed and talked about in school, but it is such an important problem to recognize.
Did you know that according to National Violence Resource Center, one in five women experiences sexual violence or rape? What motivates this violence?
The psychology behind rape is complex, and researchers and psychologists have varying ideas on what goes through a rapist’s head before he or she acts. According to Norm Schpancer, Otterbein University psychology professor, “sex has inherently violent undertones”. In past eras, male sex drive was considered “animalistic” as to render men unable to control themselves when stimulated. Schpancer believes that this past misbehavior serves as a justification for the current problem of rape and assault.
Gabe Cripe, from Women Helping Women, explains: “We live in a society that normalizes, tolerates, and even condones sexual assault. In a rape culture, sexual assault is joked about, dismissed, or just not taken seriously. Men are encouraged to objectify and dehumanize women. When one person views another person as an object, it makes it much easier for them to harm that person.” Cripe also identifies the hostile or derogatory beliefs about women that motivate sexual violence.
“Sexual violence begins with ‘dehumanizing’ a victim; a woman is perceived as something less than a human being or even as an opportunity,” Mrs. Woodall mentions. Women are typically more vulnerable as men are, on average, physically stronger. Some males see this weakness as an opportunity for an “attack” and some may even look at an opportunity for assault as a “challenge”. By raping a weaker or innocent victim, a man might find satisfaction for his strength and male dominance. Mrs. Williams agrees that sexual assault and rape can occur because of “an abuse of power or having traditional gender roles that focus on the inequality of women.”
The motivation for sexual abuse dates all the way back to medieval times when men were rewarded for aggression by dominance and control over women; this in turn might have caused sexual aggressive instincts, which are passed through genetics. Schpancer concludes that social pressure from society tends to have greater influence on human behavior than biology and heritage. Mrs. Williams recognizes that “Many gender stereotypes can start at home. They are also displayed in the media, sports figures, and even schools.”
Ohio University sociologist Martin D. Schwartz, studied sexual assault on college campuses and the role of peer support. Two-thirds of college students experience rape or assault and 90% of victims do not report it. Schwartz found that men whose friends are complacent of aggression toward women are more likely to engage in this behavior themselves. Schwartz identifies the disconnect between a man's morals and the expectations upholding manliness: “Men saw violence and danger as a part of masculinity.”
Cripe agrees that “our society enforces very strict gender roles. As men, we are taught at a very young age that we are supposed to be tough, aggressive, and not show emotion. We are taught that violence is an acceptable way of dealing with conflict. We are taught that men should always want to have sex and should never turn down sex. When we combine this normalization of violence and messaging about sex with the way we are encouraged to objectifying women that we discussed before, we can see why we live in a society where men’s sexualized violence against women is common.”
Out of 1000 rapes, 995 preparators will walk away free. Out of that 1000, only 230 victims report their situation and only 46 reports lead to arrest. Why do women choose to not ask for help? “Why someone would choose not to report is a personal decision. The barriers to why victims may not disclose the assault or rape could be blame, they know the abuser, fear of not being believed, if the abuser is a respected leader, and the legal process is re-traumatizing for the victim,” Mrs. Williams states.
Shalia Dewan, writer for The New York Times and victim of sexual assault, believes that the principal reason women will not expose their situation is because she blames herself: “She can’t remember exactly what happened. She sent friendly text messages afterward. She didn’t fight back.” Experts agree that the leading reason women do not report rape is because of doubt.
An article from Samuel Merritt University describes that “the most common reactions that survivors experience following an assault are self-blame and guilt, that they ‘must’ have done something to bring on this assault”: Did I drink too much? Why did I go to that party? Why did I get in the car with him? Current society has a culture of victim blaming where “heavily ingrained gender-based messages continue to exist and perpetuate the belief that the victim (usually a woman) is somehow to blame.” Cripe, from Women Helping Women, says that when people ask questions like these, “All of these responses place unnecessary and underserved blame on survivors and can be deterrent to survivors disclosing any further.”
Another reason women avoid reporting the occurrence is because of trauma reaction, according to the university’s article. The feeling of being truly powerless is emotional and psychologically traumatic. Mrs. Woodall recognizes, “sexual violence is about assertion of privilege and power -- the violent assertion.” Feeling weak in situations of rape and assault can be humiliating and some women shove it down, believing that they can move past it and maintain a sense of control and hope.
Cripe points out that a majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows. “This could be a friend, acquaintance, partner, or ex-partner.” If a victim is assaulted by a close peer, it can be very confusing and some may shy away from reporting it since they may have had a previous relationship. “People may fear reporting because they know they have to interact with this person again or because they are worried about their physical safety.”
Mrs. Woodall further addresses that “men and women have developed a very toxic fear of intimacy, leading to a dynamic in ‘relationships’ that is terrifying to those who seek to guide those in adulthood.” What used to be movie dates and dinner has turned into drunken hookups, she concludes.
Overall, “men and women have the right to dress as they wish, to walk alone at night, to flirt, to kiss… and to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ at any time,” the Samuel Merritt University article reminds its readers. Although drinking unsafely may make a victim vulnerable, “no one has the right to rape [...], ever, no matter what [one may] say or do.”
The issue of rape and assault is closer to home than we realize. An American citizen is raped every 98 seconds, so it is important for young people to be aware of and familiar with the subject. “As a society, we can build safer communities that have open conversations about sexual assault, hold the abusers accountable, and incorporate consent into the Health class curriculum of all schools,” says Mrs. Williams.
Not only in Health, but also in Social Justice courses, young women have the opportunity to talk about assault and ask any questions they have. Mrs. Woodall says that “recognizing dehumanizing language and behavior for what it is, women may have an opportunity to avoid instances of assault.”
As a speaker for Women Helping Women, Gabe Cripe believes that the most important thing that women should know about rape is that it is not their fault. “At Women Helping Women, we believe all survivors. We are in the community to advocate for survivors and are available 24/7 if and when they feel comfortable reaching out.”