Unthinkable acts, unspoken truths
It’s an invasive, forceful act — one of the most traumatizing experiences someone could ever go through. And it’s also a punchline.
Defined as sexual contact against someone’s will, the definition of rape should be clear-cut and tough to argue. But for a multitude of reason, the act seems to be deemed a moral grey area, and the seriousness is downplayed.
“I don’t think that we actually know what an assault is anymore,” mused Wilfrid Laurier University women and gender studies professor Helen Ramirez. “Even if it happens to us, we don’t recognize it as an assault. We recognize that it makes us feel uncomfortable, but in the culture that we currently live in, we’re told to just accept it, laugh at it and move on.”
According to many writers and scholars, rape isn’t just a crime — it’s a culture that encompasses everything from sexist remarks on the street to the mass rape of women during war and for students male and female alike, it is a part of our everyday lives.
Downplaying the terror
Despite the seriousness of the act, the term ‘rape’ is often tossed around frivolously, as if disassociating the word itself with the trauma of the act.
“This is a culture where it’s okay to talk about being ‘raped’ by an exam,” said Ramirez, “Using language that diminishes the actual horror of what a sexual assault is and normalizing it.”
One example of frivolous use gone too far occurred last December when the University of Vermont chapter of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity circulated a controversial survey. Among other questions, the survey asked, “If you could rape anyone, who would it be?”
“That’s like saying you’re going to kill someone,” said Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union president Nick Gibson in a disgusted tone. As a member of a fraternity (Sigma Chi), Gibson felt angered by the actions of this particular fraternity. “It frustrates me beyond no end,” said Gibson, who asserted that this perpetuates the popular misconception that Greek life is immersed completely in drunken debauchery and excessive sex. “There is more to fraternities, and if there wasn’t more then I wouldn’t be in the organization.”
Unfortunately for those involved in Greek life, the bad press has not done them any favours. In October of 2010, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity’s Yale chapter was banned from the campus for five years.
The fraternity, which former U.S. president George W. Bush was a part of years ago, occupied an area outside women’s dormitories chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal!”
“Is it actually funny?” asked an incredulous Gibson. “Why would you say something like that? What is your motive here?”
Perhaps if students knew the sobering statistics of assault, they’d be less inclined to imply that they were forcefully violated by a Scantron sheet or that they would gladly assault their female neighbour. According to the Ontario Sexual Violence Action Plan, which lifts their numbers from Statistics Canada, one in three women will have experienced some form of sexual assault in their life since the age of sixteen.
One of the biggest reasons for this ignorance is the fact that fewer than ten per cent of crimes are reported to authorities.
Sarah Casselman, the public relations and operations manager for the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) of Waterloo Region discussed a multitude of reasons why so many victims hesitate to go forward.
“The criminal justice process is a very, very difficult process for most women,” she said, adding, “They have to relive the experience again, and often throughout the experience they’re traumatized again.”
One of the more troublesome reasons for victims coming forward is not out of fear, but out of love.
In 82 per cent of cases, the victim and the accused have known each other, whether they’re friends, acquaintances, family members or even intimate partners. “It really puts to bed the ‘stranger danger’ myth,” said Casselman, who knows from her line of work that most assault doesn’t take place in a darkened alley.
The trauma of rape at the hands of someone the victim knows can lead to trust issues. “It becomes very difficult because we want to say, ‘Well, not all men rape,’” said Ramirez. “And of course they don’t rape. But when the good men that you thought were good men do sexually assault you, then it becomes much more difficult to be able to trust the men who are good and who won’t sexually assault as being true to their word.”
But perhaps the biggest aversion that causes victims to shy away from authorities is the slut-shaming associated with experiencing rape. “Women are constantly getting blamed for what men do to them,” said Ramirez.
Placing the blame
Both Casselman and Ramirez want to avoid labeling men as rapists. However, as Casselman pointed out, 93 per cent of adult victims of assault are female while 97 per cent of accused are male.
“It’s a gendered crime,” insisted Casselman, “And to prevent crime, you don’t look at those who are experiencing it, you look at those who are perpetrating it.”
But Ramirez and Casselman both sadly stated that too often, the victim is made to feel responsible for the attack, be it due to her clothes, her behaviour or her sexual history.
“They are unprotected because they are called sluts,” said Ramirez. “It tells women once again that they are not allowed to dictate their own sexual being and it releases men from being held accountable for assault.”
Two high-profile cases of slut-shaming and victim-blaming came into the mainstream last year when Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti recommended to a group of York University law students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to avoid sexual assault and only a few weeks later Manitoba judge Robert Dewar handed convicted rapist Kenneth Rhodes a conditional sentence citing the victim’s tube top, high heels and heavy makeup as an indication that she “wanted to party.”
“We see those really blatant cases that have existed across Canada, but it’s often much more subtle than that,” said Casselman. “People often have the thoughts that they know they’re not supposed to blame the victim so they say this disclaimer: ‘Oh, I know it’s not her fault, but ….’ That ‘but’ has a huge, huge impact.”
As a public relations worker, Casselman often has to deal with reporters seeking information on assault prevention, which leads to loaded responses. “They’re well-intentioned, but they’re saying, ‘Okay, it’s prom season. I want to write an article on how women can avoid getting sexually assaulted during prom,’” said Casselman.
Safety tips for women are a conflicting issue for many, including Casselman. “There’s this little bit of truth in them,” Casselman reasoned. “Do we want women to have as much information as possible in terms of their own safety? Of course. Would I want the most options possible? Yes. Do we want to promote them living in fear and feeling like they are responsible? No, not at all.”
So when it comes to curious reporters, Casselman usually answers a question with a question. “They want me to say things like, ‘Make sure you use the buddy system, make sure you watch your drinks,’” she said. “I often say to them, ‘the question I’m going to answer is, how can we raise our boys to not sexually assault the women in their lives?’”
Changing the tone
Many more recent assault-prevention campaigns have targeted not women, but men.
These campaigns cover every issue from the highly debated ‘drunken consent’ issue to matters related to street harassment.
The Sexual Assault Voices of Edmonton group created the “Don’t be that guy” campaign, which urged men to reconsider pursuing women in intoxicated states. Non-profit organization ‘Men Can Stop Rape’ has launched a series of campaigns encouraging men to speak up when they hear problematic or sexist language from their male friends.
It’s a step in the right direction, but Ramirez believes that change needs to happen at a faster rate, especially on university and college campuses.
“It’s become acceptable to have sex with as many young women on campus as possible and call each of them a ‘kill,’” she explained. “The evaluation of women’s bodies, discussing with other guys about whether she’s a good ‘lay’ or if she has great breasts or whatever it might be assumes that there’s conditional access to women’s bodies.”
While objectification happens across all genders, Ramirez takes issue with heterosexual male students seemingly using their “kill count” to reinforce their own manliness.
Gibson feels that there is a well-defined line between expressing attraction and objectifying, yet so many young people seem to disregard that line.
“I have no issue with men or women, whether they’re homosexual or heterosexual, giving credit where credit is due,” he said. “But you have to remember that that’s a person you’re talking about.”
The solution, according to Ramirez, is to start a dialogue. “Men need to say to one another, ‘If I see my pals or my peers making jokes or referring to women as sluts or cunts, I’m going to stop them from saying that.’”
Gibson feels that what starts as a seemingly innocent thing such as a joke can often go to far. “There’s certainly a lot of pressure to be macho, and it’s really incremental and people don’t see how it happens until you go too far,” he said.
“It starts by someone makes a comment, then someone makes another comment and then they get all their friends saying that, then they’re making jokes all the time, and somehow we get to a point where forget that the person you’re making jokes about is a person.”
Gibson feels that it’s important to halt these attitudes before jokes manifest themselves in actions. “The best thing you can do if you’re not comfortable outright shaming someone is to just not laugh,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll rethink and go, ‘That really wasn’t funny, was it?’”
“None of those jokes are ever funny,” stated Casselman. “If people really knew the impact that sexualized crime and rape have on people’s lives forever, it’s one thing that you’d never make a joke about.”