Thinking Comprehensively: Preventing Sexual Violence

There is a parable used often in education to describe the reforms that are needed to better serve those students who are left behind or pushed out of our educational system:

A man and a woman were having a picnic along the river outside of their village. As they were eating, they heard a baby crying and, looking around for the source, saw a baby floating down the middle of the river.

The woman waded out and caught the baby and passed it to the man, only to realize there was another baby coming. The man ran to the village to get help, and before long, there was an organized party who were forming a chain across the river to stop the ever growing number of babies who were floating down the river. They saved a lot of children, but the number of babies was too many, and they could not save them all.

Then a young girl walked away from her duties on the riverbank and marched upstream. People yelled at her, “Where are you going!? We need your help!”

She replied, “I’m going to find who is throwing all these babies in the river so that we can stop them!”

Here’s the lesson for any social justice cause: If we don’t get to the root of the issue, all we’re doing is pulling some individuals to safety while losing others to the river.

In combatting sexual violence, undoubtedly, we must work to help survivors heal, seek justice, and find the “new normal” in their life, but that cannot be our only work.

We must prevent sexual violence before it happens. But how do we do that? What does it look like?

Expanding Who We Think of As Survivors

We can start by changing how we think about who experiences sexual assault.

In most prevention and response work, the focus tends to be on cisgender, straight women as victims and cisgender, straight men as perpetrators.

And there’s good reason for that: The vast majority of survivors are straight, cisgender women.

And with limited resources (especially in these times of austerity), those who work to prevent violence and support survivors tend to focus on that majority in order to best serve as many survivors as possible.

But to prevent sexual violence, we must acknowledge the incredible diversity of survivors and perpetrators.

Read the rest of the article at Everyday Feminism.

Preventing Sexual Violence – Rethinking Lisak & Miller

My friend Dave and I have a unique connection. Both of us work with young men in the effort to build more inclusive, less violent understandings of masculinity.  As a former sexual assault survivor’s advocate and someone who travels the country to talk to young people about healthy sexuality (among other subjects), I value the opportunity to talk to men like Dave, who regularly works with middle school or high school boys and men to re-envision masculinity.  I was anxious to get Dave’s opinion about a controversial subject I’ve been mulling over for a while: the oft-cited Lisak & Miller 2002 study.

Me: “Do you think it’s possible that 96% of rape is committed by 4-8% of men?

Dave: “It just doesn’t seem possible! Nearly every single man is brought up in a culture where we are taught to objectify, speak disrespectfully about, and sexualize women.  I, like many young men, learned about sex from porn and locker room culture.  How can someone be conditioned in this way and not be a risk for committing sexual violence?  We are not taught how to have responsible, healthy sexual relationships!  When I was young, I literally couldn’t conceive of a respectful sexual encounter because I had never seen one.  Until I was mentored to understand a more non-violent masculinity, I very well could have hurt a woman in a way that we would describe as sexual violence, though no particular memory comes to mind.  Until we teach young men how to understand sex through the lens of communication and non-violence, we won’t stop the problem of rape.”

Much has been said about the Lisak & Miller 2002 study (and Predator Theory in general), particularly in the wake of the “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” piece at Good Men Project and the subsequent criticism, most notably over at Feministe.  In particular, many have argued that it’s impossible for someone to commit rape without setting out or intending to do so because, in the words of David Lisak, “the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by serial offenders who, on average, have six victims. So, this is who’s doing it.”  This has left me unsettled, so over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time reading and rereading the Lisak & Miller study and the work that uses it to extrapolate the number of men actually committing rape.

My conclusion? Lisak & Miller and all of the studies they cite (as well as the McWhorter study cited in the phenomenal piece by Thomas Macaulay Millar at Yes Means Yes) are vitally important for understanding and isolating the “undetected rapists” who are committing a tremendous number of rapes.  As Millar points out, “We need to revoke the rapists’ social license to operate.”  We must change the culture of our social spaces, our parties, our relationships (particularly men’s relationships with men) so that those committing the kinds of rape discussed in the scholarship of Lisak & Miller have the rug pulled out from under them.

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In the words of my friend Sara, a former career sexual violence prevention specialist and survivor’s advocate, “It’s really important to think about the historical significance of Lisak’s work. He was doing this work back when ‘date rape’ was a new word and the common belief was that rapists were in the same category as psychopaths and murderers. The idea that a seemingly ‘normal’ man would prey upon women in social settings was a BIG deal for people that worked in victim services.  His study gave a voice to women who had been assaulted by men like the ones he interviewed and gave law enforcement a broader picture of who perpetrates rape. This was a big step in our understanding about the power and control dynamics of rape.”

That said, does the Lisak & Miller 2002 study (and similar research) describe all of sexual violence?  No.  Are there forms of sexual violence that are not and could not be captured by the study and the others that support its claims?  Definitely.  And to ignore this fact is tremendously dangerous, particularly if those who are adhering so closely to the findings of Lisak & Miller are the ones doing the daily, on-the-ground work to end sexual violence.

Limitations of Lisak & Miller 2002

“Several limitations of this study bear mention . . . Because of the nonrandom nature of the sampling procedures, the reported data cannot be interpreted as estimates of the prevalence of sexual or other acts of violence” (Lisak & Miller 2002).

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Guilty for Speaking Up – Blaming Survivors of Sexual Violence

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

As many of you undoubtedly know, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now-former head of the International Monetary Fund and a candidate for President of France, has been accused of raping a hotel housekeeper in New York City.

Cue the survivor blaming.

The letter of the law in the United States requires that someone accused of a crime must be considered innocent until proven guilty. If only the law required such a high standard for a survivor of sexual violence.

This morning when I was reading the New York Times, I came across an article about all of the attention given to the survivor of this allegedly horrific attack.  In situations like the one involving Strauss-Kahn, “the women suffer the collateral damage of our interest” in powerful men.  The article describes the way that we obsess over the women who are tied sexually to powerful men like Strauss-Kahn, whether that obsession regards a consensual relationship like in the recent scandal involving Arnold Swartzenegger or rape.

Almost immediately after the allegations of rape were made against this powerful man, the allegations of fraud and sexual impropriety against the survivor began to pile up.  The common narrative isn’t that a power-obsessed womanizer might have taken his lust one step too far, sexually assaulting a woman who he sees as beneath him.  The NY Post even victimizes the alleged rapist, calling him a “humiliated, 62-year-old suspect” who couldn’t get bail due to his being a flight risk (since if he gets back to France, he will never see a court room).

No. The narrative is that a low-income immigrant woman MUST be lodging fake allegations in hopes of getting rich.

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