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Sexual Violence & What You Can Do About It
Sexual violence is an umbrella term used to describe sexual assault, sexual harassment, street harassment, relationship violence, child sexual abuse, and stalking. Each of these presents themselves differently but all are an attack on a person’s sense of self, their body, and their ability to feel safe. Sexual violence can happen to anyone of any gender or sexual orientation.
Each form of sexual violence is equally important and can have a profound impact on the survivor. Understanding these different forms is the first step to helping stop these behaviours. Let’s start by defining two of the big ones: Sexual assault, and Sexual harassment.
Sexual assault is any sexual contact without voluntary consent. This can mean any type of sexual touching, forced kissing, and penetration. This term is far broader than rape — which only alludes to penile-vaginal penetration — the acts covered under this term are equally serious. Some survivors may choose to still describe their experience as rape rather than sexual assault, which is their prerogative and completely their choice.
Here are some myths about sexual assault:
- MYTH: Sexual assault happens because people get carried away with their desires and their need for sex.
- TRUTH: Sexual assault is a form of sexual violence. Like many other crimes, it is more about getting power and control. Sexual assault happens because the perp put their desires over the survivor’s right to consent.
- MYTH: Sexual assault is sex.
- TRUTH: Sexual assault is violent, invasive, and one-sided. It is important to make this distinction because if we frame sexual assault around sex rather than violence, we focus on the perpetrators narrative instead of the survivors’. This opens the door to blaming the survivor for the perpetrator’s actions. Sexual assault is about exerting power over another, and thus, sexual assault is not sex to the survivor.
- MYTH: If they didn’t want it to happen they would have fought back, or at least said something.
- TRUTH: “Fight or flight” syndrome is a well-known reaction to danger, however, one more option is missing. The old adage should actually go “fight, flight, or freeze”. The ‘freeze’ portion is a documented neurobiological response (also called tonic immobility). This response occurs in event of extreme fear and is not the choice of the person experiencing it. According to research, around 50% of survivors experience tonic immobility — this does not mean that they consented.
Sexual harassment is any behaviour or communication aimed at someone with the intent of attacking their sexuality, sexual identity, or sense of safety. The receiver of sexual harassment will often feel uncomfortable, humiliated, or threatened. While this behaviour is not illegal in Canada, it is considered a violation of human rights. Depending on the situation, you can report events of sexual harassment to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. You can also file a complaint with federal, or provincial Human Rights Commisions, the Human Resources department in your workplace, or University Human Rights offices.
Common examples of sexual harassment include (but are not limited to):
- Telling an unsolicited crude joke (especially when it makes others feel uncomfortable).
- Commenting on someone else’s sexuality or sex life when they haven’t asked for it.
- Sending photos of yourself in the nude to someone who hasn’t asked for it.
- Not taking no for an answer after you’ve asked someone on a date.
- Giving unwanted sexual looks or gestures.
- Offering unsolicited sexual communication in any form (FB message, text, email, phone call).
- Participating in street harassment:
Common myths surrounding street harassment include:
- MYTH: Only women are harassed in the street.
- TRUTH: Anyone of any gender and sexual orientation can be harassed in the street. Additionally, men aren’t the only perpetrators of this kind of behaviour. Anyone is capable of behaving in such a way.
- MYTH: It was a compliment, not harassment.
- TRUTH: Even if the person was trying to “flatter” them, or be “funny”, it can still be offensive.
- MYTH: Only the person who the harassment was directed at is affected.
- TRUTH: A third party witness to sexual harassment may also be affected.
Now that we know a little bit more about each of these we can start to talk about how to react to the problem. The first thing you can do is support survivors.
It can be hard to know how to react if a friend discloses an incident of sexual violence. However, supporting them isn’t actually that complicated. The best thing you can do for them is: Be present, listen, and asked them what they need. It’s an honor to be trusted with this part of their story, it shows that they trust you — be worthy of that trust and be a safe place for them. A big part of supporting survivors is also checking your behaviour.
Checking your behaviour
It can seem like an endless task to end sexual violence, but one way you can help is to check your behaviours to see if you are doing anything that contributes to this problem.
- Don’t joke about rape. It shows that you don’t think that it’s a serious issue.
- Don’t make excuses for friends who exhibit ‘perpy’ behaviour. It can be difficult and awkward to stand up to them — but it’s imperative.
- Don’t offer tips to survivors like “Maybe you shouldn’t have had so much to drink.” This puts the blame on the survivor instead of the perp.
- Don’t refer to women by derogatory names like “bitches”, “sluts”, or “whores”.
- Don’t expect sex as a reward for doing something nice for your partner. Sex is NOT a reward.
- Don’t whistle at, or make rude comments, to people on the street.
- Don’t make sexual jokes at inappropriate times, or when you know it will make someone uncomfortable.
- Don’t spread rumours about other people’s sex lives.
- Don’t touch people without their consent. Yes, this includes hugging.
Everyone is capable of engaging in these behaviours; it doesn’t mean that everyone is a bad person. Some people are unaware of the effects of their actions, and so we need to stop making excuses and call it like we see it. This means holding ourselves and those around us accountable.
Here is the last thing you can do:
Demand a better world.
Use your power and influence to demand better of yourself and others.