close up of man and woman - holding hands

In recent years, campaigners who work against sexual assault have broadened their focus from educating women on how to not be raped, to educating men on how not to rape women. It seems like a lesson that doesn’t need teaching, except that alarming statistics suggest that it does. In a 2002 survey that asked 1,882 college men if they’ve ever engaged in forceful sexual activity, 120 men, or just over 6 percent of those surveyed, copped to it, provided the question didn’t actually have the word “rape” in it (see the survey report by David Lisak and Paul Miller). Other studies like Lisak and Miller’s have found double that number. Even more alarming, the vast majority of these men denied that what they’d done counted as rape, even when it was explained to them.

Gearing anti-rape education towards men is a positive step not just because there are promising early signs that this strategy will reduce incidents of sexual assaults (as it has in Vancouver), but also because it suggests that work against sexual violence could become more central within broader nonviolence movements, which is something that really needs to happen. Anti-sexual assault campaigns tend to be specialized, in that they’ve traditionally been aimed at specific audiences (women and university students, for example). But the implications of their research can offer broader nonviolence initiatives a more nuanced understanding of violence itself.

Sexual violence should be a visible and integral part of every nonviolence movement because it’s the most naturalized and understated form of violence in our society, and the best and clearest demonstration of how we’re asked to be complicit in acts of aggression every day.

This probably comes across most whenever a rape joke goes viral on someplace like Twitter (like this recent one). Inevitably, there’s a vocal segment of the population who argue that jokes about rape are misconstrued—that they’re supposed to be funny, and that we shouldn’t take them seriously. Girls tell these jokes, too, obviously completely oblivious to the actual aggression that the words convey. One of the most troubling things that comes out of these incidents is that the people who tell these jokes have somehow overlooked the literal meaning of the words they’re saying. They don’t recognize violence as violence. Just as college age men don’t think of themselves as rapists even when they are, other people argue that they’re not, as people, pro-rape, even though they’ve just told a joke that supports rape, and then argued for their right to spread such a message.

Recent anti-rape campaigns that focus on educating men as well as women go a long way towards making violence visible for what it is. We need this especially because statistics show that we’ve been thinking about sexual assault all wrong; that rape is not usually perpetrated by crazy strangers lurking behind dumpsters at night, but by acquaintances. Rapists are people we know, and who we know should know better, but who nevertheless haven’t seen their behaviour as constituting acts of violence. If we can learn to see the most effaced form of violence, and discover the patterns that allow that violence to be erased, we stand a much better chance of understanding how it can become so common in the first place.

Sexual violence is about power, and these campaigns have great potential to educate all of us not just about sexual violence, but about how each of us uses power in our daily relationships. The nonprofit organization “Men Can Stop Rape” asks men to become aware of how they view the people close to them and to take ownership over their concepts of personal power: the kinds of power they exert and the kinds of power they expect to have in their environments. Initiatives like Edmonton’s anti-assault campaign “Don’t Be That Guy” question how self-image is determined by culture, and insist that every man take responsibility for their own actions, and not offload it onto drinking, social pressure, or the ludicrous idea that skirt length can make one person force themselves onto another (because to be clear, that’s just plain not how physics works).

There’s a real turn towards thinking about rape culture, that is, how sexual violence is naturalized in society to the point that rapists feel validated in their expressions of coercive power. This has also led to anti-rape campaigns that focus on bystander intervention—on how those of us not involved directly in assaults can work harder to prevent them and discourage the kinds of attitudes that make sexual assaults tolerated. And it’s entirely within our power to do that, because it will almost always be a friend or acquaintance that we think is basically a good guy who’s doing the assaulting. Projects like “Draw the Line,” from the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres gives young people, especially, strategies to intervene if they see sexually coercive situations happening, or about to arise. Bystander intervention is a concept that’s getting a lot of mileage across North America (see here for other campaigns), because of its ability to use communities to change attitudes towards assault. Thinking about rape culture, and about how each of us will respond to it, means that when an assault happens, we can stop asking “how could this happen” and start thinking about how to make our opposition to all forms of violence louder and more persuasive so that there’s not a “next time.” And that’s something every nonviolence movement can benefit from.

Read more about nonviolence in ACTIVE NONVIOLENCE: Q&A with Tenpa C. Samkhar of the Active Nonviolence Education Centre>>

image: David Amsler (Creative Commons BY)