Globally, 35% of women experience sexual violence in their lifetime. This doesn’t even include incidents that go unreported, which is an estimated 80% of rapes and sexual assaults. Most women walk through life concerned they could be sexually abused at any time. Personally, if I’m walking down the street alone, there’s a part of me that is constantly worried I’ll be attacked. I hold my keys between my fingers, try not to draw too much attention to myself, and keep walking until I feel safe, especially at night. Women shouldn’t feel fear from such a young age that an attacker could strike any moment. Many people in the world still don’t see this as a big issue. But how can they rationalize that this is not a big issue given the inextricable fear still constantly driven into women, some of whom have had unspeakable acts performed upon them as young as 5 years of age? According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the data suggests that sexual violence is decreasing. However, are the numbers declining because of actual violence, or because more and more people are too afraid to report it? And while the numbers in the US are dropping, we can’t say the same about other countries. We need to do better. We can put an end to the problem, but it needs to start now. To win the fight to end sexual violence, we need more education around the subject, a change in social norms, and we need to stop blaming the victim.
Education is a key factor essential to ending sexual violence (SV) against women. One major problem with SV is that most people don’t know what type of conduct is considered sexual violence. In our school, we were taught an entire unit about sex-education, which included learning about sexual harassment and sexual assault. This is not the same in other parts of the U.S. It’s astonishing how many people don’t understand that if someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they cannot give consent, meaning you cannot legally have sex with them, because if you do, it is rape. We need to teach people from a young age the consequences of SV and how it not only affects someone’s physical health but their mental health as well. People who have experienced SV are twice as likely to develop depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other serious mental health disorders. This is the kind of information people need to understand, because perhaps if someone understood the mental health impact of SV, they would think twice. We could make much more progress towards reducing SV by better educating others about what SV is and how it impacts the victims and the people around them.
If we are going to reduce SV, we need to change social norms about women. One place to start is with the media. The media creates so many stereotypes around women that have such a huge effect on how women are pictured by men. Thousands of ads objectify women each day. If the media changed from portraying women as trophy wives to portraying them as role models, oozing with confidence and empowerment, men may view women differently. A majority of movies include female characters simply as love interests. Few movies involve character development of the female role. The surprising thing is that we are exposed to these stereotypes from the time we are toddlers. Yes, movies are changing. For example, Disney has created movies in recent years featuring strong female leads. But given the history of Disney movies where women are objectified and given that most of us are raised on these old movies, the recent changes do little to buck the trend.
Finally, the data suggesting that SV is declining in the U.S. may be misleading, due to the victims’ unwillingness to report SV. One of the reasons SV is so underreported is because of fear. Women who have gone through this experience are afraid to be judged, afraid their reputation will be ruined, and afraid of the threats that could result in reporting the crime. Too many times we’ve heard people say things like, “What were you wearing?” “Was your skirt too short?” “You shouldn’t have had that much to drink” and even things like “You were asking for it,” the most shocking of them all. Never is it the victim’s fault that some other person saw the victim as a target. The clothes you wear don’t matter, the places you go to don’t matter, it is never the victim’s fault. Because of the judgmental society we live in, though, victims are often afraid they will be judged. This results in the victim never reporting the crime, and a criminal ends up getting away. Instead of helping the women cope through this experience, we often send threats making them so scared they stay quiet. This has been the cause of too many suicides. Audrie Pott and Rataeh Parsons just to name a few who both committed suicide because of the constant death threats and bullying they were receiving from simply standing up for themselves and doing what’s right. They felt that their life was ruined because of this and took their lives because of it. We need to create a community that won’t blame the victim for being taken advantage of, and instead be with them through this time of broken trust and fear.
There are too many stories of women who have experienced sexual violence. We need the 35%of women who experience SV to dwindle to 0%. Will we ever get there? We won’t know until we try. Sexual violence won’t just go away with one person. Educate yourself on sexual violence, so when you see something suspicious or know of something that’s going on, you will say something about it; do whatever you can to change stereotypes by introducing strong female roles into your household and celebrating women as much as we do men; and lastly, we need to end victim-blaming so women around the country can get the justice that they deserve without fearing for their lives. No more girls should have to grow up being scared. Sexual violence needs to stop. If not for our generation, then for the generations to come.