November continued an unabated, grim chronicle of sexual assaults perpetrated by powerful men against women in positions of relative weakness or outright dependence. It’s easy (and justified) to condemn the offenders, but does the society in some measure have itself to blame as well? Dr. Eve Waltermaurer of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz has been studying violence in intimate relationships for twenty years. The results of her recent Views on Women (VOW) poll offers disquieting insights into the social context for these acts of sexual assault.
The VOW poll—supported by the Times Union’s Women@Work —randomly surveyed 1,050 New Yorkers across the state. Findings from VOW identify a far deeper societal struggle about rape and sexual assault than most of us realize, chiefly that we tend to blame the victims of these assaults, and not solely the offenders, according to Waltermaurer.
For instance, when asked if a woman dressing in provocative clothing contributes to her being raped, over 60 percent of men aged 18-35 believe it does. But it is not just men who hold these attitudes. Strikingly, Waltermaurer found that just under 45 percent of women in the same age bracket agree with this sentiment.
These disturbing poll responses, Waltermaurer says, are unfortunately part of a pattern we’ve been unable to break. And while we hear many young women speak out against these abuses and for women’s empowerment, Waltermaurer has found that younger women may actually subscribe to negative attitudes toward women who are victims of sexual violence more frequently than their older counterparts. “One reason older women more frequently reject the idea of sexual and domestic violence as ‘normal’ is that as they gain self-confidence over time they realize, ‘I don’t need to accept this.’ A younger woman, in terms of relationships, has not quite achieved this confidence.”
A chief problem is that even today, Waltermaurer asserts, we do not know how to talk about these issues, especially when sex is involved. Sex is shunned as a topic of discussion in school. “The dial hasn’t moved because once the word ‘sex’ is there even parents are afraid to talk to their children.”
Waltermaurer explains that school dress codes are just another way for schools to send a message that how a woman (or girl) dresses contributes to how she’s treated; or if she’s assaulted. “We treat boys or men as if they cannot control themselves, and that therefore we’re doing the girls a favor by telling them to cover up and that it is girls’ responsibility to control boys behavior, not the boys themselves. But the argument that boys cannot control themselves simply serves as another justification for sexual assault,” Waltermaurer says. She explains that we’re giving men a pass by telling them society must protect women rather than confront prevailing attitudes. Thus the cycle of failure to understand and teach the root causes of sexual violence persists.
“It’s the ‘Asked for it,’ problem.” This attitude prevails in blaming a victim not only for how she dressed, Waltermaurer noted, but if she was drinking or doing drugs, if she had a “reputation,” among other victim-centered explanations.
As for answers, Waltermaurer says there aren’t easy solutions. She says every effort is important, from anti-bullying campaigns in schools, to Black Lives Matter, as well as current memes that grew out of high level revelations of sexual assault such as Me At 14 (arising from allegations of Roy Moore’s assaults on women in their teens), as well as the #MeToo movement.
“The #MeToo movement is important because it shows sexual assault is everywhere,” Waltermaurer explains, meaning: Not just in Hollywood. But she says American society needs to go from that recognition to understanding that, as she puts it, “Cat calling to a woman on the street and saying ‘Hey, nice boobs,’ isn’t acceptable.”
Is that the same thing as assault? That, Waltermaurer says, is part of the conversation that Americans need to have. And she says it starts with not being afraid every time the word “sex” is used. Because sexual violence, harassment, bullying, taunting, and rape are about more than sex. They’re about power. And she says that coming to grips with that fact, for men, yes, but also for women, is going to take a great deal of work.
But she says awareness is only the first step toward changing the attitudes found in her poll. She says we make a huge mistake when we don’t understand the similarity of what’s at stake whether it’s about a woman’s right to choose, incarceration rates among African Americans, police violence against African Americans, bullying or sexual violence. “All of these are about power too, about feeling that some people are less than you.”
How do we evolve from here?
Very importantly, Waltermaurer argues that we cannot be passive observers and expect change. With nearly half of New Yorkers feeling that a woman’s behavior contributes to her being raped, a message is being received loud and clear by victims – we think, at least a little, that this is your fault. This contributes to self-blame and silence about the experience, she says. Waltermaurer suggests that we as a society can only combat the persistence of these assaults by looking the abusers in the eyes and saying, “This is not okay by me.”
She says research has shown that most bystanders to abuses oppose the behavior, but at the same time feel they are alone in their opposition because no one else has spoken up. Bystanders might feel powerless to voice their opposition either when witnessing the preambles of abuse, or after the fact, once they’ve learned what’s happened to a parent, sibling, relative, colleague, or friend. Until we start speaking up, Waltermaurer says, telling the abuser what he (or she) did was wrong rather than laying responsibility at the victims of abuse, these victim blaming myths and these victimizations will persist.