At the end of 2012, when a 23-year-old woman in India was viciously attacked and later died of her injuries, it touched off a movement which will hopefully have a profound effect on their culture. Not surprisingly, there is no such movement in the Congo where rape continues to be used against both men and women as a weapon of war. During the last American presidential election, the absurd and enraging remarks about rape and pregnancy got a lot of press as well as more activity from women’s organizations in a long time. In a Toronto neighbourhood last summer, people came together after a series of sexual assaults, resulting in well-attended and well-publicized demonstrations.
And yet, despite decades of feminism and talk of “rape culture” we do not seem to have affected a fundamental shift in thinking in Canada.
Working in middle school and high school classrooms for three decades, I dedicated considerable time to issues of gender equality, including developing an education module on sexual assault specifically in a dating situation.
Years ago, I was in a class of Grade 8 students, 13-year-olds. We were working through the first part of an exercise on sexual assault. I was asking them to respond to a list of statements. It was interesting that they often gave the thumbs up to what they thought was the “correct” answer. For example, “no always means no” almost universally got a yes. Then, I would explore why some girls and women may say no at first, but then seem to accept the advance. They understood that some girls and women don’t like to be considered “easy”; that they worry about their reputations. They also understood that the tone of voice or body language could lend their “no” a certain ambiguity, resulting in miscommunication, especially if alcohol was involved.
Next statement: “a person never loses the right to say no.” One boy stood alone in his refusal to accept that notion. I asked the class under what circumstances someone might want to stop the action and the student responses included: experiencing pain if it was the first time, a change of mind, worries about STIs, etc. But this one male student steadfastly insisted that once you started you had to finish. I said, “what if you’re with a girl, you’re on top and you see that she’s in pain?”
“Turn her face away,” he said.
I later found out from his teacher that he had trouble with female authority figures, which made sense in terms of his misogyny and lack of empathy; but it also made me fearful about his potential future behaviour.
It is an understatement to say that parents are raising children in a culture steeped in contradictory images of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. What’s a parent to do?
One day when my children were young, I heard my young son and daughter fooling around in the living room. My daughter sounded unhappy about what was going on. I peeped in. My son had pinned her down and she was struggling to get up. I said to my daughter, “say, ‘get off me’ like you mean it”; and to my son, “and then you have to listen.”
Of course, using this kind of teachable moment can only happen in a context with all other things being equal. Statistically, a child who has been sexually abused is more likely to be sexually assaulted, especially in the absence of good therapy. The egregious ongoing assaults and murders of Aboriginal women are in a category by themselves based in the profoundly racist history of our relationship with First Nations people.
We live in a society that deems us responsible for our choices in health, including sexual health, without taking into consideration the factors over which we have no control, like abuse, poverty and racism. Yet, the potential for dealing with sexism remains the purview of the parent through education. What is taught—or not taught—in the home can have a profound effect on children’s ability to work through the issues despite the media barrage of sexist images, including pervasive violent sexual images.
After the 23-year-old Indian woman died of her injuries recently, men in India laid their bodies down in the street and called for a fundamental shift in culture. Our White Ribbon Campaign has made some significant inroads; and yet, the scourge of sexual assault remains statistically high. In 2011 more than 21,800 sexual assaults were reported in Canada. We know this represents only one in ten of the actual assaults, which are most commonly committed by someone we know.
Of the many challenges facing our quest for equality, this one runs deep.