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Opinion: Sexual Assault Is Not A Women’s Issue, It’s A Societal One

By Maneesha Kelkar, adjunct professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department at Montclair State University

Posted in: Faculty Voices, Humanities and Social Sciences, Uncategorized

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Note: This Op-Ed was published on on Thursday, April 28, 2022.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Every year, women’s organizations nationwide hold vigils, marches, training sessions and events, speaking out against sexual assault, and deliberate on prevention as well as better service provision for survivors. The conversation around sexual violence has moved from the margin to the center and is now well represented in mainstream media.

And yet, sexual assault remains a pervasive problem with no end in sight. We need to re-examine the frame with which we look at sexual assault, and in fact, all gender-based violence, because they’re not ‘women’s issues, they’re societal ones.

Although anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 9 out of 10 adult rape victims are female. Women between ages 18 and 24 are at the greatest risk for rape – three times the general population if they attend college, and four times if they don’t. In fact, female college students are twice as likely to be raped than robbed.

Over the last several decades, many steps have been taken to address this seemingly intractable issue. Title IX, a federal civil rights law established in 1972, prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational institutions in the U.S.; sexual assault falls under its purview. The Violence Against Women Act, a federal law passed in 1994 and reauthorized multiple times including as recently as last month, has created powerful responses to sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.

The passage of groundbreaking laws like these has made possible the provision of victim services, training and advocacy nationwide. Closer to home, in New Jersey, every county operates and runs a sexual violence center, and college campuses have their own individually designed responses to protect students.

What, then, are we missing?

Sexual assault, and in fact all gender-based violence, is framed as a ‘women’s issue,’ since the majority of victims are female. Research in the field has clearly identified the root cause of violence against women to be the unequal distribution of power between men and women, and our subsequent tendency to either turn a blind eye to the crime or actively blame the victim and support the perpetrator.

In story after story, the victim of rape, most often a woman, is questioned about her moral character – her dress, her relationships, her habits, whether she had been drinking, and her actions in general, in order to determine whether “she asked for it.”

Her behavior is placed under minute scrutiny, while the perpetrator moves on with impunity. We, as a society, abandon women. When a problem is seen as a women’s issue, women are left to find a solution.

How would it look if we took a different approach? If instead of treating gender violence as a women’s issue, what if we reframed it as a societal issue? What if all of society held the perpetrator accountable for the crime, instead of the victim?

And how about bystanders? Most men don’t attack women, but many men (and women) do stand by silently while women are assaulted, harassed or otherwise mistreated. Society after all is you, me and everyone. What if we held everyone accountable?

As the noted feminist bell hooks has said, “Rape is a symptom of the problem.” The problem is the constant devaluation of women. Are we not all complicit in disparaging women, in not believing them?

When a woman is harassed at work, often both male and female coworkers question the authenticity of her complaint. When men make sexist jokes in a company, it is not only the men in the room who laugh. Women often join in, too. What if all of us, men and women, refuse to laugh, say it isn’t funny, or simply walk out of the room?

Men often undermine women to gain approval from their peers. Women often deride other women to gain approval from men. When we silently let some amongst us degrade women, we contribute to an environment that enables violence against them. When women are diminished and reduced to mere objects worthy of derision, it becomes easier to commit crimes against them.

This frame – sexual assault not as a women’s issue, but as a societal one – would look very different. If everyone is held accountable for the occurrence of not just sexual assault, but all violence and discrimination aimed at women, we will treat each other as equal members of society, worthy of respect and dignity. Men and women will not be complicit in the devaluation of women.

If we all hold each other accountable, we will create a mutually respectful environment where violence against women is not tolerated. By anyone. And this month, that’s what we should begin striving to achieve.

Maneesha Kelkar is an Adjunct Professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department at Montclair State University. She is the former Executive Director of Manavi, a NJ organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence.