Courtesy of Don Harder/
United States / Sexual Assault

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Assault

Disclaimer: This article takes the stance that sexual assault is a predominantly male problem. Yes, women can also assault, but ninety-nine percent of perpetrators are male. Additionally, this article primarily talks about women as the victims of sexual assault. WOMEN ARE NOT THE ONLY GROUP IMPACTED BY SEXUAL ASSAULT. Members of the LGBTQ community, children, and men can all encounter sexual assault and deserve to live in a world free of sexual violence.

One in five women experience attempted or completed rape while in college. This is a fact. I have heard it so many times, connected to so many colorful images and demonstrations, that it nearly ceases to have meaning. Eighty-four percent of victims know their attackers. Eighty-six percent of rapes go unreported. Some form of sexual assault occurs every two and a half minutes in America. The statistics are endless and overwhelming. Most emphasize the likelihood that women will be victimized. Comparatively few mention the perpetrator at all.

The ongoing #MeToo movement, in which women post their experiences of assault and denote it with a #MeToo, has gone viral. The movement plays into a narrative in which women are tasked with taking responsibility for their own victimization. I do not mean to suggest that this movement cannot be empowering for women. Many of the women in my life that participated did so because they wanted to use their voice to bring awareness to an issue that is deeply personal to them. They wanted to reclaim that victim role as something more empowered. What I do suggest, is that #MeToo perpetuates language of sexual assault in which the victim is asked to bear the brunt of the responsibility for an act that they did not commit. It asks her to relive challenging, frequently traumatic experiences while emphasizing her choice to reveal her story rather than the perpetrator’s decision to commit the act in the first place.

One story on my Facebook feed for #MeToo was written by a woman, here referenced by E for anonymity, that experienced sexual harassment:

When I was 17, the boys in my class took it upon themselves to see how many of them could successfully make out with me and if they succeeded, they would officially be a member of their “club” the “in-n-out” club. Essentially, pretend to care about me and lead me on just until they got into said “club” then slut shame the shit out of me until I went home crying from school everyday. Then I thought, well it’s my fault. I should’ve known better, I should not have trusted them. These rumors turned into a reputation, which would later lead to unwanted sexual experiences because I was labeled as a “whore” and “easy.”

It’ll be easy, for many of us, to question E just as she questioned herself. Why was she so naïve? Isn’t she just blaming those boys for her mistakes? This fundamentally misinterprets her story by focusing on her actions. She is not responsible for the coercion, the bullying, or the unwanted sexual advances. The boys in her life were. Nevertheless, she is the one who has had to take ownership of these experiences. The problem with #MeToo, and by extension a variety of the ways in which we talk about sexual assault, is that it places victims at the center of the issue. Yes, survivors of sexual harassment and violence are deeply impacted and deserve to speak about their experiences, but they are not the cause of the problem. Perpetrators and the systems of oppression that support them are. Included in these systems is the specific rhetoric surrounding sexual assault.

In his TED Talk “Violence against women – It’s a men’s issue,” Jackson Katz explains how dominant groups remove themselves from discourse in order to avoid considering their own dominance. Consider the following series of sentences, first described by feminist critic Julia Penelope:

John beat Mary

Mary was beaten by John

Mary was beaten

Mary is a battered woman

Simply by restructuring the sentence from active to passive voice, the subject of abuse moves from John, the abuser, to Mary, the abused. Mary becomes defined by John’s actions, while John is escapes culpability entirely. This cognitive restructuring removes men from the conversation by rewriting a gender issue to be a women’s issue. It fully erases the male role in assault and reinforces a dominant social structure in which women are the subjects of gender violence.

The reluctance to focus on perpetrators as the source of sexual assault has lead to a dearth of information about men who assault. Sherry Hamby, the editor of Psychology of Violence, told the New York Times that she receives “ten papers on victims for every one on perpetrators.” Certainly part of this is the difficulty of finding men who will openly admit to illegal and harassing behavior, but it is nevertheless indicative of considering sexual assault a women’s issue. What research has determined about perpetrators is that they come from a variety of demographics. Neither race, class, nor marital status are markers for potential abuse. Instead, something that was found in common with rapists and assaulters was a confusion with assault rhetoric. Of men who would admit to non-consensual sexual encounters that qualify as rape, eighty-four percent would not classify it as such. Many believe that assault and rape are real problems, but are unable to connect themselves with those same crimes.  They overwhelmingly  “do not believe they are the problem.”

At the end of her post, E wrote “To those boys, I hope this story stings. I hope that you take a moment to reflect on your past and realize that yes, #youhave.” She refocuses the lens from herself to those boys, now men. Do they know that, at least once, they were a part of the problem? Living in a culture that collectively releases men from the stress of being named an abuser, it’s entirely possible they never thought about the hurt that they had caused. The path moving forward is hard and slow. It requires a fundamental shift in how we think about sexual assault and gendered issues. It requires acknowledging not only that ‘I have been hurt’, but that ‘I have hurt others.’ It requires telling friends and people you hardly know that it’s not OK to hold women accountable for male actions. We are unlikely to dismantle the social structures that bolster sexual assault in our lifetimes, but so many women believe that maybe, someday, it can be done. Me too.