I recently stepped back into the world of working to end violence against women. I was at a meeting in Dallas I helped organize to talk in part about the recently broken sexual violence silence by women who’d been assaulted on college campuses. Young women have begun telling their stories about being raped on campuses, reporting those rapes, and not only not being heard by administrations, but being silenced. Reluctance to talk about sexual violence is rampant. I know, I used to talk about it a lot at work and not much anywhere else. It’s not a topic of dinner party conversations.
The second time David and I got together — a poetry reading in Portsmouth, dinner first — I let loose my Sexual Assault Rant and he didn’t flinch. A good sign. My rant consists of strongly worded dismay at the ubiquitous presence of unwanted sexual touch in the lives of women that nobody talks about. Sexual violence silence.
Well I’m talking about it, right now. I love research. I’m well enough known for my collaborations with researchers from when I was working at the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and since, with the brilliant women of Preventions Innovations Research Center, that I’ve been asked to review a paper on the topic of researcher-practitioner collaborations for a top peer-reviewed journal (Violence Against Women) in the field.
So here is some research of my own. For over a decade I’ve been asking women I meet from all parts of my life if they’ve ever experienced unwanted sexual touch. Not a chargeable offense necessarily, but some instance of a man touching a sexualized part of your body, uninvited, for his own gratification. Only one woman has said no. That’s to hundreds of “Yes.”
It’s certainly not strict quantitative research because I haven’t been keeping track of who I ask, so I’m not sure of my n, the number of women. But it’s a lot. And nobody talks about it. The inability to move around in the world without some man touching your butt or rubbing up against you on a crowded bus or grabbing your breasts is not okay, and yet women all have to live with it. It’s a fact of life.
In decades of working to end domestic and sexual violence, I saw a significant shift in how people in general talked about domestic violence and how they responded to battered women. The injustice of blaming the victim began to be accepted and the press started accurately portraying murders of women as domestic violence murders, not “crimes of passion.” The focus, in large part, shifted to the batterer, the one causing the harm.
The same has not been true of sexual assault. Think of some of the highly publicized sexual assault media stories in the last decade. How often has the press included discussion of the victim’s actions and credibility (“why was she in his hotel room?” “why did she get so drunk?” “doesn’t she have mental health issues?”) instead of looking at what the perpetrator did?
It’s a wonder anyone ever does report a sexual assault, given how victims are treated. If we can’t get communities to pay attention to the most egregious sexual assaults, would anyone pay attention to reports of the micro-aggressions of everyday life in which women’s bodies are sexualized targets for the fraction of men who don’t get that boundaries apply to them?
I’m tired of the silence. I’m going to start telling some stories. Stay tuned.