Editorials, Opinion

Can we have a world without sexual assault?

As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, we look back on the horror stories survivors bravely shared and the things we’ve learned about the resources organizations offer to victims and the steps law enforcement take toward justice. And we daydream, perhaps naively, of a world in which we no longer need a “sexual assault awareness” month.

Such a dream, if it were to come true, doesn’t start with teaching people how to avoid being raped. It starts with teaching people not to rape, or harass, or stalk, or coerce.

It’s teaching ourselves to unlearn the toxic behaviors and thought patterns that have allowed rape and harassment to run rampant.

That means no longer equating masculinity with sexual prowess and insisting that guys will always — or should always — want sex. It means no longer victim blaming by asking what she was wearing or how much he had to drink. It means not tolerating sexually explicit “locker room talk” or brushing off inappropriate comments and wandering hands as “flirting.” No one ever asks to be raped and no one ever deserves to be raped. The same goes for sexual harassment — physical or verbal.

We need also to rethink the stereotypes and the popular culture tropes that downplay or romanticize problematic behaviors. For example, the cliché goes, “she slept her way to the top,” but what that usually means is “men demanded she grant them sexual favors in exchange for job security and/or promotion.”

Then there’s the sitcoms and rom-coms that portray harassment as “romantic” — something that ends in happily ever after. The Notebook comes to mind. In one iconic scene, Noah, hangs off a ferris wheel and tells Allie, a girl he thinks is cute, that he’ll let go and plummet to his death if she doesn’t agree to go out with him. So she agrees. In this fictional world, it’s a daring gesture that ends in true love. In real life, its coercion.

Or there’s a frequently used trope of one character having to “convince” another that they are in love (or should date or hook up or whatever), so they keep propositioning or seeking the other character out even after receiving a “no.” In fiction, it’s a romantic notion of perseverance. In reality, it’s stalking and harassment.

First, we have to recognize these tropes as problematic. Then, we have to make sure we don’t use them in real life and call out the people who do.

For the next generation, preventing sexual assault means teaching them at a young age about consent and boundaries. It means not telling girls that if a boy picks on her, it means he likes her. It means teaching girls that they are not obligated to be “nice” — to defer to others, to say yes even though they are uncomfortable. It means teaching boys that they aren’t entitled to whatever they want, and they can’t resort to aggression to get it anyway. It means not excusing boys’ bad behavior as “boys will be boys” — because someday boys will be men, and those behaviors that seem harmless now will be predatory later.

That’s the final aspect of “sexual assault prevention”: Accountability.

Too often, sexual harassment and sexual assault amount to little more than a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 975 perpetrators out of 1,000 assaults will walk free. In other words, only 2.5% of rapists will spend time in prison, and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmates in prison for rape or sexual assault will usually only serve out 62% of their sentence, for a median of four years behind bars.

In general, the consequences of sexual assault and harassment are much harsher for the victim than for the perpetrator. All too often, the assailant will have his future defended because of what holding him accountable might do to his prospects, even as the victim’s life falls apart.

Preventing sexual assault starts with us. With unlearning the behaviors and thought patterns that have allowed sexual violence to become pervasive, and then teaching our children to be better. And it ends with holding rapists and harassers accountable, because as long as the victims have more to lose by coming forward than the perpetrators do by being caught, then we’ll never be rid of this scourge.