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Translated by Audrey Morabito
The news feed of the past few weeks reveals an increase in media coverage of sexual assault cases. In the United States, the media reports on the sexist remarks of Donald Trump, as well as the sexual assault allegations made against him. In the academic world, it was the release of Brock Turner from prison - a student from Stanford who sexually assaulted a fellow student at a party - that was covered by the media. In Quebec, we can think of the exposure of initiation rituals at various universities like the wave of sexual assaults that took place at the Université Laval. As well as, the prosecution brought by the police officers of the Sûreté du Québec of Val-d’Or against Radio Canada for shedding light on the situation of Aboriginal women and the sexual violence they suffer, which are notably perpetrated by the police force.
This media coverage, although overwhelming for many, not only gives better visibility to this type of violence in an academic setting, mainly committed against women but also to the term “rape culture”. Rape culture, as it is known in the United States, was first introduced by the feminist movement in the 1970s (Sills et al., 2016). It is a critical concept compared to the commonly accepted notion that rape is an aberrant act perpetrated by a deviant person.
However, advocates of the term rape culture suggest that it refers to a myriad of everyday social and cultural practices (Gavey, 2005).
This mostly involves minimizing and normalizing men’s aggressive sexual behaviours and blaming women for the assault they have suffered. Even though rape is largely condemned, some of its manifestations remain widely tolerated in many societies (Gavey, 2005). Studies show that rape culture is also present among university students. This would have the effect of maintaining ideas that reflect the responsibility to the victim for the event which they suffered (Whatley, 1996).
Prevalence and Manifestations
The prevalence of sexual violence on university campuses is significant. University of Ottawa’s Task Force on Respect and Equality (2014) reveals that 26% of women have experienced sexual violence in a university setting, 67% have experienced some form of sexual harassment online, 75% would have been the subject of sexually suggestive jokes or comments and 50% of them have been looked or stared at in a way that made them uncomfortable or even scared.
Empirical studies have been able to identify the contexts that are favourable to the occurrence of sexual violence. Festive contexts (for example a party, happy hour, social activities) and romantic dates would be more conducive to sexual violence (Flack et al., 2007; Franklin et al., 2012). In both these instances, alcohol and/or drug consumption can also be present (Fedina et al., 2016; Flack et al., 2007; Rennison & Addington, 2014).
Factors Influencing Rape Culture
For several years, studies have been interested in the concept of victim blaming as well as the social context that would support this culture (Whatley, 1996). Several factors, with a high prevalence in empirical studies, contribute to perpetuating a social context that blames and denigrates victims for being sexually assaulted (Grubb & Turner, 2012). These factors are a combination of myths linked to sexual assault, attitudes towards gender roles and the amount of alcohol consumed by the victim (Grubb & Turner, 2012).
The myths linked to rape are rampant amongst university students (Hockett et al., 2016; Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2004). These myths are understood to be culturally situated and socially learned ideologies that condone sexual violence (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Burt (1980) defines myths about rape as being erroneous beliefs about rape, the victim and the abuser. The two most common myths are the perception that sexual assault necessarily implies physical violence and the belief that the victim is responsible for the assault (Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2004). It is possible to argue that these myths support rape culture, in the sense that the words of the victims are not heard, remembered or believed.
Gender roles, on the other hand, are established through a socialization process by which different behaviours are encouraged in women and men (Grubb & Turner, 2012).
Gender is a social construct that encourages the initiation of sexual activity in men and sexual passivity in women (Burt, 1980).
This supposes a certain rigidity in the way we perform and think about gender daily. Different behaviours are associated with specific genders based on stereotypes which then imposes a sexual line of conduct on women. These traditional gender roles are woven into a sexist culture. Thus, adhering to these roles has the impact of conceiving the female gender as (always) being sexually showcased for the male gender and thus, being responsible for their effects. On the other hand, it is assumed that the male gender struggles with uncontrollable sexual urges. According to Burt (1980), the adoption of traditional gender roles is significantly linked to adherence to the myths about rape. This being said, rape culture is not exclusive to one gender: everyone contributes, consciously or not, to its maintenance by the discourse they hold.
Alcohol consumption has been used to justify rape. A recent Canadian study, which questioned 899 first-year female university students, reports that over three quarters (79.6%) of the women who were sexually assaulted mention that it happened while they were intoxicated (Senn et al., 2014).
Abbey and colleagues (2001) have observed a different gendered relationship to alcohol in these types of situations. Abusers blame alcohol and their intoxication level as a means to explain the sexual assault. On the other hand, women blame themselves and take responsibility because they were rendered more vulnerable by having consumed alcohol or being heavily intoxicated which would have facilitated or caused the sexual assault (Fisher et al., 2008). This type of double discourse takes place in rape culture which tells women to self-monitor because they are at risk, at any time, of experiencing sexual violence. However, the link between alcohol and sexual assault is neither simple nor direct. The results of the Senn and colleagues (2004) study, do not support the premise that sexual assaults involving alcohol results from a misunderstanding between both parties.
Furthermore, it would be false to believe that sexual assault would disappear if women drank less because it would imply denying the actual cultural climate which blames women for the violence they suffer.
Thus, prescribing certain behaviours to women in order to protect themselves from sexual assault turns out to be an ineffective intervention strategy that turns a blind eye to the underlying issues.
Intervention and Courses of Action
Studies inform us of the best practices for intervention. Bystander programs, mostly implemented in the United States, are a community approach to violence prevention (Banyard et al., 2004). Rather than targeting individuals as potential victims or abusers, these programs encourage members of the community to become more socially aware of the issues surrounding sexual violence. Bystander programs teach them the necessary competencies to help prevent sexual violence or to support survivors. This education strategy has the effect of reducing the resistance people may have concerning sexual violence education, as well as, increasing the motivation to intervene in order to prevent sexual assault (Banyard et al., 2007).
In Quebec, several militant initiatives have seen the light in the past few years (for example, Je suis indestructible), prevention campaigns are widely disseminated (for example, the Sans oui, c’est non campaign, as well as the Sexe, égalité et consentement conferences) and movements to denounce sexual assault are on the rise, such as Québec contre les violences sexuelles, which was launched last October 21st. This media coverage on sexual violence has helped lift the veil on a problem that must be addressed. It is hoped that recent events will contribute to the reflection on this type of violence and will allow us to, collectively, arm ourselves with adequate education, prevention and intervention strategies.
*The author of this article uses the term “survivor”. However, to accurately report the research findings of the studies, the term “victim” is sometimes used.
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