Several years ago, we shared a graphic on social media that went viral. The image, pictured below, shows a pie chart on a dark background with the title “Causes of Rape.” The pie chart is entirely teal — which is the same color assigned to “rapists” in the chart key. The message? There is only one cause of rape: people who choose to commit this crime.
This chart is accurate, in the sense that the only person responsible for sexual violence is the perpetrator. It is a great way to push back against the narrative that all-too-often unfolds related to sexual violence: that the victim or survivor is somehow at fault. Victim-blaming can take many forms, from asking what the person was wearing, arguing that they were flirting and therefore “wanted it,” or even stating that the person should not have been drinking or using drugs. All of these statements shift the burden onto the victim/survivor — and off of the perpetrator.
Individuals who commit acts of sexual assault must be held responsible for the decisions that they make — that much is clear. But it doesn’t stop there. We must acknowledge the factors that contribute to the prevalence of sexual violence in our society.
First, sexist, homophobic and transphobic jokes all contribute to a culture of violence. At the same time, the objectification and degradation of women in our media allows many people to view women as little more than sexual objects — rather than human beings. Think of it this way: when we are constantly assailed by pictures of women being degraded, it isn’t surprising that many boys and men believe that it is OK to treat women in this way — or for girls and women to believe that this type of treatment is acceptable.
Second, rigid gender norms reinforce the idea that men should be sexually aggressive conquerors who don’t take no for an answer, and that women should be submissive and having to be talked into having sex. These stereotypes are bolstered by pop culture — like movies that regularly feature a male lead “winning the girl” by ignoring her clear lack of interest and continuing to pursue her even after she has said no.
Third, rape culture is a major reason why sexual violence continues to occur at such high rates. Rape culture is a society where violence against women is both prevalent and normalized. Many things contribute to rape culture — like victim-blaming, violence against women in the TV shows that we watch or even judges deciding that a person who committed rape should get a light sentence because they have a promising future. One example of rape culture is how often sexual violence against women is a plot point in books. All too often, sexual assault is used as a story arc for male and female protagonists alike — perhaps the male lead saves a woman from being raped, turning him into a hero, or the female lead uses the trauma of a rape to fuel her search for revenge. When sexual assault is so prominent in all of the pop culture that we consume, it is little wonder that so many people have become desensitized to it.
While the person responsible for rape is the person who chose to engage in this assault, we must take a closer look at why sexual violence is so common in our society and the many factors that play a role in this epidemic. By choosing to speak up when we hear someone using problematic language, to turn off the TV when we see something that degrades women, and to push back against gender norms, we can make a difference in how our society views sexual violence.
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