Getting to the root of rape

When a reporter calls to interview me about specific cases of sexual assault or rape, nine times out of 10 I’m asked, “What can people do to keep themselves safe?”

It’s an important question to ask, and it’s a question the public wants answered. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple, and (thankfully) it doesn’t include, “Don’t go out alone at night!” or “Use these fancy new cups that detect date rape drugs!”

Earlier this week, The New York Times published a column in which Frank Bruni interviews University of Mary Washington Professor Chris Kilmartin about the cultural supports of sexual violence. Kilmartin’s answers are in large part what I tell reporters when they ask me what the public can do to keep themselves safe:

“We start boys off at a very early age. … When the worst thing we say to a boy in sports is that he throws ‘like a girl,’ we teach boys to disrespect the feminine and disrespect women. That’s the cultural undercurrent of rape.”

Making our communities safer is not the responsibility of victims or potential victims – it’s the responsibility of all of us to prevent sexual violence before it starts.

Despite huge gains in gender equality, our society still assigns different roles and different worth to men and women. Men are supposed to be strong and want sex; women are supposed to be delicate and resist sex or give into sex under pressure. When these norms are perpetuated, when these sexual mores continue to be part of how we talk about sex, “the cultural undercurrent of rape” continues to be part of our communities.

Kilmartin also points out that the impact of modeling behavior and bystander intervention can change cultural assumptions and norms about gender: “If men are conditioned to show the same self-control toward women that they do, successfully, in following myriad military regulations; if they’re encouraged to call out sexist behavior; and if, above all, commanders monitor their own conduct, never signaling that women are second-class citizens.”

Like I said, there is no easy answer. Changing gender norms takes education, practice, then more education and more practice. But, as we see changes in pockets of the world take hold, talking about the answer gets easier.

Cara Courchesne is communications and outreach coordinator for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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