By Allyson Carr, Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.
To open up the new semester and a new year on Ground Motive, I thought I would start by tackling a big issue that has been receiving a good deal of attention in the news lately and which also, from time to time, has been a topic in my own research. That topic is sexual violence. As an acknowledgement of the truth that this is a deeply traumatic and personal topic for many people, I am placing a warning here that although I have tried to choose news links very carefully, any of the links referred to below may include traumatic "triggers," since they contain the stories of woman who have been subjected to some of the most atrocious crimes one could imagine. These stories are important to know, however, so that we can address the underlying issues which often support such crimes.
I was already thinking about writing a post on this difficult topic when a friend of mine sent me a link to a picture of some men in
who were protesting against rape. Seeing the picture changed the tone of what I was going to write, but I will get to that in a moment. First, some background for those who may not be aware of details of the ongoing situation in India. The current wave of protests were ignited by the recent brutal gang rape of a 23 year old woman
on a public bus, which resulted in her death from injuries sustained during the assault. Aside from the fact of its extreme brutality, it has touched such a public nerve because sexual
violence is a widespread problem across many parts of India,
with perpetrators getting off easy or with no consequences at all, and politicians or public figures making excuses that only strengthen such a culture. (Eating chowmein?! Really?!)
The picture I saw, which was posted on reddit (a social news website) and commented on by one of the men in the picture, was of a group of men who had donned skirts as a form of protest in support of women. (Just as an aside, I am referencing the image at the top left of the page and not necessarily the comments on that image, which occur on the same page. The comments reflect the democratic and at times chaotic nature of anonymous social commentary--some of which will be on topic and others of which will devolve into irrelevant or even offensive "jokes.") The signs these men had taped on their shirts made the point behind their choice of dress clear: one of the signs read “Men, teach your sons not to rape,” while another added “Men, don't skirt the issue: speak up, support women.”
First off, kudos to these men for understanding a fundamental truth about any form of social injustice—of which wide-spread rape is a stark example. That truth is that injustice concerns both those who bear the brunt of it and those who do not bear the immediate brunt. To put it another way, if there is a cultural or societal problem with sexual violence against women, it's not a "women's issue,” but an issue for everyone in that culture or society. And it can only productively be dealt with by co-operation across cultural or societal membership: in this case, with women and men thinking, speaking, and acting together.
Now, let's be honest: this is not just a problem in India. We could begin by talking about how rape has been used across many different cultures as a tool of war. We could continue by noting that sexual violence can be targeted at specific communities or cultural groups (speaking, for instance, about the significantly higher rates of violence perpetrated against First Nations women in Canada, and the apparent systematic refusal to treat it as a systematic problem.) But even in areas that are not currently at war, sexual violence has a long history of having been used as a tool of control. Our streets and homes in Canada are hardly free from this, and I could add my own stories from growing up in a small, impoverished city in Michigan, where sexual violence was part of the fabric of social relations. Of course I was told to protect myself by dressing conservatively and not going out by myself even during the day, and I was also told not to look men or young males in the eyes, (in case it might provoke them). But I learned as I grew that sexual violence had little to do with sex as such, and a great deal to do with how women are viewed, as well as with some men's feelings of social powerlessness to which they respond by taking their rage out on people they could treat as more powerless than themselves. Really, sexual violence had to do with control.
This is precisely why sexual violence is a social issue, and an issue of social justice. The sexual violence we are seeing with increasing clarity today, I would argue, comes largely (though not entirely) from this dual root: on the one hand, a perception of women as a "resource" to be controlled, and on the other hand as a reprehensible manifestation of rage and frustration stemming from other issues of social injustice, such as racism, poverty, and hunger. Neither of these roots is any excuse for sexual violence, but both of those roots need to be addressed, systematically and individually, to end sexual violence against women. (I should say here that sexual violence can and does happen against men as well, and is equally inexcusable. I am focusing in this post on sexual violence against women because it is by far more widespread; but that is not in any way to denigrate the impact of the horrific sexual crimes some men or boys have also had perpetrated against them. All sexual violence must end.) Systematic injustice, both in the form of gender-based oppression and social oppression of other kinds, is a pressure-cooker for violence in general and sexual violence in particular.
Earlier I mentioned that I had already been considering writing a post on the topic of sexual violence, and that seeing the photo I have described here changed the tone of how I was going to write the post. That is because seeing images like this one give me hope. The decision these men pictured in skirts made to "dress up for social justice"--to put on clothes that are culturally seen as reserved for women, as a means of making a point about demanding social justice for women--was one way that they could take part in the co-operation across cultural and societal membership I mentioned above. This is a form of solidarity. It is a way of saying that this sexual violence is not just a "women's problem," but is everyone's problem. It is a way of taking a stand on a vital issue of social justice upon which healthy social cohesion depends. Finally, it is one way of joining in an already ongoing conversation, and advocating the idea that working together in solidarity can bring good change. So here's my question today: what can we say as part of that conversation? And what can we do to ensure that real, positive change happens both here in our own culture(s) and across this increasingly globalized world?