As a long-time advocate for victims of sexual violence, I am always grateful for an opportunity to talk about how we, as a society, can prevent this kind of horrific and criminal behavior. That said, I am also frequently angered and frustrated by many of the conversations that do take place. A classic example is the current debate in North Carolina surrounding Charlotte’s new non-discrimination ordinance.
This ordinance, which provides new protections from discrimination for the LGBTQ community, is long overdue. In 2016 America, we cannot pay mere lip service to our belief in equality and fairness for all.
Sadly, the main sticking point in the debate over this new law is the same contentious provision that sank a similar proposal when it was introduced last March, and one that has been used whenever opponents of gender equality feel threatened — the use and safety of public restrooms.
“Sexually deviant men are just waiting to pretend they are women so they can finally get into women’s bathrooms to commit assault against women and children” is the mantra of the opposition. This is certainly a scary prospect, and one that needs to be prevented. However, since the new ordinance does not in any way supersede existing assault laws, the protections we have on the books to stop people who do attempt to assault others in public bathrooms remain in full force.
The real questions in the current debate, therefore, are: a) Does the argument put forth by opponents bear any real connection to what we know about sexual violence in our society? and b) Is gender segregation an effective tool to stop sexual violence?
In a culture that is saturated with sexual images but feels uncomfortable with genuine (rather than commercial) expressions and discussions of sexuality, it’s no surprise that there is a lot of ignorance and myth around sexual assault.
Here, therefore, are some facts:
- About 80% of sexual assault is committed by someone known to the victim (86% in the case of child sexual assault).
- The majority of sexual assaults take place at the home of the victim, the perpetrator, a friend or family member or another place frequented in many instances by both the victim and the perpetrator (school, workplace, church, community center).
- Stranger rape in public places is a danger, but it is much rarer.
We need to use these statistics as well as survivors’ stories to enact policies, laws and practices to prevent as many incidents of sexual violence as we can, while also recognizing that trying to control all the details of one scenario isn’t necessarily going to stop future sexual assault.
There have no doubt been instances of sexual assault occurring in public bathrooms, but there have also been thousands of documented instances of coaches abusing their young players, clergy abusing their parishioners, and teachers abusing their students. The answer doesn’t lie in eliminating every possible situation in which an assault can occur; it lies in understanding how predators and rapists can take advantage of those situations, and committing to making sure they no longer are able to do so.
In addition to that, we need to focus efforts on holding perpetrators and their enablers accountable for their actions, and teaching as a core value that respect for others means we never feel entitled to another person’s body. Because, ultimately, that is the root cause of the sexual assault epidemic in our society — the belief by some that they are entitled to the bodies of others.
I understand that sexual violence is frightening, and we all want to do what we can to prevent it. But stoking fears based on inaccurate stereotypes and myths — such as the belief that transgender women can easily be impersonated by heterosexual men, or that all men are rapists just waiting for an opportunity to attack to women — isn’t doing anything to curb this epidemic.
We have to face the reality of what sexual violence really looks like. This means grasping:
- the reality that such violence already occurs in gender-segregated spaces like bathrooms, dormitories and locker rooms; because predators aren’t waiting for a formal invitation,
- the reality that lots of sexual violence is already perpetrated in gender-segregated spaces by people who are the same gender as their victims, because women and girls can be perpetrators of sexual violence, and men and boys can be victims,
- the truth that sexual violence is not driven by gender differences but by power imbalances — between men and women, between adults and children, between cisgendered and transgendered people, and
- the truth that the majority of sexual violence — what drives our societal epidemic — is perpetrated by someone the victim knows and perhaps trusts, in a place with which the victim is very familiar.
History has long taught us that sexual violence doesn’t happen because the men and women are sharing a space. Sexual violence happens when people see others as nothing more than a prop to satisfy their desires, with no respect to boundaries of the other person and an insistence and belief that one has a right to anybody else’s body but their own. That attitude, particularly of men towards women and girls, is prevalent in our society, and it is one that is taught to us from an early age.
But we can change that. We can provide children with age-appropriate, medically accurate, comprehensive sex education throughout their childhood and adolescence. This education should include frank explanations of what it means to give and obtain consent around any sexual activity, how to set boundaries based on one’s comfort and feelings, the spectrum of what constitutes sexual violence — from sexual harassment to excessive pressure to perform sexual acts to rape. We must also put support systems in place to assist sexual violence survivors and teach how to personally support victims of sexual violence.
We can and must also “unteach” the attitudes that many of us have grown up with. When we take seriously all forms of sexual violence, including the unwanted, sexualized “teasing” that goes on in schools and workplaces, as well as the use of sexist, homophobic and transphobic language to insult and demean others, we are creating a culture that teaches us to respect that others’ sexuality and bodies is theirs to give, not ours to take.
Policies like the one just passed in Charlotte that prohibit discrimination based on one’s deeply personal sexual expression and gender presentation are part of what teaches that respect. It declares that we all have the expectation that no one has a right to know what goes on in our bedroom or what is under our clothes if we are just going about our business in public. And setting that boundary is a step towards confronting the many issues at the heart of the sexual violence epidemic in our culture.
Tara Romano is the President of N.C. Women United.