April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, bringing needed attention to the issue. However, I don't think sexual assault is something we should be thinking about and fighting against just one month out of the year. As a nation, we need to be fighting against societal notions of gender and the violence pervasive in American culture that leads to sexual assault. Gone are the days when women were taught that sexual assault was confined to serial rapists in dark alleys. Today we know that the majority of sexual assault occurs between acquaintances in perceived ""safe"" locals. Sexual assault occurs in marriages and committed relationships. Women (and men) are battered and forced to have sex with someone who is supposed to love them.
It seems to me that women's advocacy groups are not doing enough to address the causes of sexual assault. Young women are still taught never to leave a beverage unattended. Women are cautioned against dressing too provocatively or behaving in a manner that attracts too much attention. Why are we not exploring what would lead someone to roofie another or purposely intoxicate another for the expressed purpose of taking advantage of them? Why are we not addressing the societal expectations that define notions of ""good"" and ""bad"" girls, notions that inhibit female behavior and inform the perception of that same behavior?
Regardless of how many times university officials publically admonish victim-blamers, there is still a pervasive attitude that victims of sexual assault are somehow accomplices in their own rape. Even on supposedly progressive campuses such as UW-Madison, men and women alike admonish female victims of sexual assault who drank too much or dressed too provocatively. Until attitudes like these change, attitudes that peg women as dangerous temptresses, our ""awareness"" of sexual assault will be hindered by a belief that sexually active women get what they deserve.
Victim blaming goes hand-in-hand with the belief that perpetrators of sexual assault are not entirely guilty or responsible for an assault. I can't tell you how many times I have heard the fear-mongering story about this really nice guy, who honestly thought this girl wanted to have sex with him, and now he's facing jail time because she changed her mind the morning after.
Bullshit. We need to quit repeating this story like it happens every weekend, like thousands of decent men are destroyed every year by vindictive or capricious women.
What does it say about our society that we let men off the hook because they were drunk and horny, or a victim was dressing and acting provocatively? Madison PAVE chair Tera Meerkins points out that, ""men might have this feeling that our society really values them being sexually active."" If this is true, then it's no wonder men are so preoccupied with sex, to such an extent that it could cause a man to coerce or force someone to have sex with him. We need to challenge notions of masculinity that encourage male sexual ""conquests"" and pressure men to sleep with as many women (or men) as possible.
Another way in which advocacy groups are working to combat sexual violence is by drawing attention to gender relations. When we start to think of sexual assault as being about power and control, about balances between genders in our society, we can begin to challenge the inequalities of power and control that lead to sexual violence. Meerkins also emphasizes the importance of changing the language we use to talk about men, women, sex and assault in order to encourage and change thinking about these topics. For example, says Meerkins, ""A lot of the terms that we use like ‘screw,' or ‘nail,' or ‘bang'...they are very violent and they're one-sided. It's about one person doing it to another person."" The idea is that if we make the language we use to talk about sex less violent, then sex will be less violent and sexual violence will be less plausible. Obviously, changing societal notions of gender is a long process, but it is the only way we can change the system that allows for the perpetuation of sexual violence.
We need to move away from a dialogue that starts and ends with condemning sexual violence toward a re-examination of what causes sexual violence. By changing the language we employ we can begin to change attitudes about sex and gender that allow for, and often justify, sexual violence. Meerkins points to the way beliefs about gender ideals and sex are propagated by the language we use: ""These messages keep getting spread, and these attitudes do get spread through the language that we're using."" Not until we change our approach can we begin to redefine notions of femininity and masculinity, notions that expect female virginity and celebrate male sexual conquest. Only when we dig really deep into the societal expectations that inform behavior, especially sexuality, can we begin to tear down the cultural constructs that support and perpetuate sexual violence.
Kathy Dittrich is a senior majoring in English and French. Please send all feedback to email@example.com.