TW // Sexual Violence Disclaimer: this article discusses and explores topics pertaining to sexual violence that may cause distress for some readers.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual violence is a significant problem in the United States. Sexual violence permeates all social, political, and economic landscapes and can have a profound impact on lifelong health, opportunity, and well-being.
According to national statistics gathered by the CDC and RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), every 68 seconds an American becomes a victim of sexual assault. More than 1 in 3 women experience sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime. 90% (9 out of 10) of adult victims of rape are female, 82% (8 out of 10) of all juvenile sexual assault victims are female, and 1 out of every 5 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Boys and men are also victims of sexual assault and abuse. Nearly 1 in 4 men experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime, and about 2.6% of U.S. men experienced completed or attempted rape in their lifetime. Additionally, men are less likely to disclose their experiences to others, due to stigma and encoded perceptions of weakness and diminished masculinity.
Sexual violence can and is often exacerbated by racial and minority group inequity. Native Americans are on average 2X as likely to experience rape and sexual assault when compared to all other racial/ethnic backgrounds. Black women are 2.5X more likely to be murdered by men than their white counterparts. Members of LGBTQ+ communities are at significantly elevated risk for sexual violence, with 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women experiencing rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of straight women; 37 percent of bisexual men experiencing rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 29 percent of straight men; 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men experiencing sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21 percent of straight men; and 47% of transgender people experiencing sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Sexual violence risk factors are even greater among LGBTQ+ people of color.
Victims of sexual assault are at increased risk for serious mental health complications, including but not limited to: PTSD, anxiety, depression, drug use and abuse, sexual dysfunction, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Sexual assault also impacts interpersonal functioning, increasing the likelihood for a victim to have family/friend problems and decreased academic and professional success. Being sexually assaulted causes economic loss. The CDC estimates that the lifetime cost of rape amounts to $122,461 per victim.
Men are predominantly responsible for the vast majority of sexual violence in America. Per the CDC as of 2010, 90 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men. Moreover, when boys and men are victims of sexual assault, 93 percent of reported sexual violence was perpetrated by men.
While sexual violence perpetrated by women should not be discounted or diminished, the above statistics are staggering and clearly highlight that men are responsible for a vast majority of sexual violence in the United States. Given this information, the question that begs to be asked is: why have we nurtured a societal gestalt which puts the onus on women to navigate the landscape of sexual violence? Moreover, if nearly 1 in 4 men experienced sexual violence within their lifetime, why is it so under-disclosed?
Both questions can be at least partially answered through examining the cultural lens in which boys and men are contextualized within society. As I’ve previously mentioned in another article, cisgender men are born into a society that demands they align to certain scripted definitions of masculinity. Men are taught that expressing emotions other than anger makes them weak; that sadness, grief, joy, are shameful emotions to be repressed; that physical, intellectual, and sexual dominance over others elevates status; and that being strong means never asking for help. These messages, both implicit and explicit, permeate our society. Over development, these messages are encoded as truths and cause the men who internalize them a wealth of unnecessary challenges and harm (i.e. gender role strain – a psychological situation in which gender role demands have negative personal and interpersonal consequences on the individual).
To the reader, I ask a series of questions: When you were a child, how many adult men in your life did you witness a with a full range of emotional expression? How often did you see a grown man cry? How many times do you remember a young boy being told to “toughen up”. Were you that boy?
When you were growing up, how did media generally conceptualize the “most popular boy in school”? Was he the student council representative, or the athletic football player?
As a young child, I distinctly remember a young boy in my class relentlessly bothering a female peer. His desk sat directly behind hers and he would find creative ways to lodge small pieces of paper into her hair. When she finally went to the teacher seeking help in a moment of exasperation, the teacher’s response was quick and dismissive: “Oh honey, that’s just cause he likes you”.
How many family sitcoms narratives are you able to recall from memory, in which the daughter attempts to hurriedly leave the home without her father seeing her attire, only to be stopped by the father who disapprovingly forces her to change outfits? Why does he do that? What is the punchline? Is it because “he knows how boys can be”?
At a very young age, boys and male presenting youth are consistently and insistently pressured to deaden emotional sensitivity in favor of brute force and the pursuit of dominance, the success of which is positively reinforced and rewarded. At the same time, young girls and female presenting youth are strongly and recurrently encouraged to accommodate the emotional limitations of boys and male presenting youth, who’s own limitations are manicured by the systems which raise them.
These gender roles are enforced and encoded so early in life. And yet, we wonder why men are the predominant perpetrators of sexual violence, and why so often women and non-heteronormative minority groups suffer violently at their hand.
What can we do?
It’s time we flip the script.
It seems a significant paradigm shift is in order. While the gravity of shifting societal gestalt towards embracing healthier expressions of “manhood” may seem daunting, perhaps we can narrow our lens to focus on the reduction of ascribed gender roles. For starters, let’s dismantlement the phrase “boys will be boys”, and foster a more nuanced awareness of gendered behavior:
“Boys will be who we nurture them to be”
“Girls will be who we nurture them to be”
“Children will be who we nurture them to be”
Imagine what childhood might look like, might feel like, if we removed the need to ascribe gender roles to children. If we worked to reduce gender role strain by giving young children the tools to become emotionally intelligent, thoughtful, resourceful, secure adults. If we worked to mobilize young boys into allies for young girls through the promotion of social norms that protect against violence, and if we not only gave permission to, but wholeheartedly endorsed the innate inclination within young girls to defend themselves against subjugation.
As with many things, change begins with the way we nurture our young.
“Education begins the moment we see children as innately wise and capable beings. Only then can we play along in their world.”
~ Vince Gowmon
“If you want a child’s mind to grow, you must first plant a seed.”
~ Maria Montessori
Are you a victim of sexual assault? Therapy is a valuable tool for processing significant life events, empathically exploring trauma history, identifying problematic patterns, and learning helpful strategies and coping mechanisms for moving forward. There are a number of therapists who are willing to help. If you are interested in starting therapy, please feel free to contact us.