One of the reasons why advocacy against sexual violence is a bit of a mess is because many of the advocates cannot keep their arguments straight. Case in point: Soraya Chemaly wrote a piece for the Huffington Post called Consent and Ending Violence Against Women and Children. In her piece, she focuses first on demolishing the notion that men and boys can be victims of sexual violence and painting sexual violence as something only men do to only women. She then goes on to argue about a lack of a “consent culture” that ignores the way societies actually work. .
For example, Chemaly wrote:
Everyday we hear stories about institutions, places and people surprised to be caught in the crosswinds of this evolving understanding. It’s hard to cede power. But, consent is a basic prerequisite to preventing and ending violence against women and the principles behind it far exceed “just rape.” Consider this list:
- The Catholic Church
- Casa Pio
- Penn State and Jerry Sandusky
- The BBC and Jimmy Savile
- The Boy Scouts
These are with little exception examples of men, operating in virtually all male power structures, not respecting the idea of consent and the rights to bodily autonomy of those without. I know that saying “men rape” is disturbing. So is saying that communities, filled with women, support them. But, this is, as we keep seeing, an overwhelmingly gendered crime. Not saying it out loud will change nothing. And, while women do abuse children sexually, they do not have the power to do it systematically, in groups and behind the cover of institutions.
In all but one of the six instances of sexual abuse cases she listed the victims are either all male or mostly male. When she argues that sexual violence is a “gendered crime,” the very cases she cites proves her wrong. Indeed, when one looks at the majority of cases involving systemic sexual abuse in institutions, most victims are male, particularly in Western countries. There is no single explanation for this, however, one aspect is definitely that societies are more willing to turn a blind eye to sexual violence against boys and men than women and girls.
Secondly, it is a vastly different argument to say “most sex offenders are male” and “men rape.” The former, while not necessarily true given the lack of research on female offenders, is defensible because it simply states what the current police reports and feminist-run research shows. The latter, however, makes a broad judgment on all men based on the actions of a few.
Thirdly, it is factually untrue that women “do not have the power to [sexually abuse] systematically, in groups and behind the cover of institutions.” According to studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice women are responsible for the majority of sexual assaults in both juvenile and adult prisons against both male and female inmates. Since women do not run many institutions, we cannot say for certain they would not abuse in those situations. In the institutions where women are the majority, like schools, we not only see women committing sex crimes, but often getting away with those crimes because they are women.
This is part of the problem with the current advocacy community. By ignoring women’s violence they perpetuate the myth that only men rape and that only women are victims. To my knowledge, there are no studies asking women about their willingness to commit sexual violence, but there are some asking men about that topic. When one never asks the question, how can one know for certain what the answer will be?
What we find when we ask people about women’s violence is that women commit more abuse than we realize. The CDC report from 2010 showed that. Several studies show that. And self-reports from victims show that. In each instance, we see people reporting women as abusers in 20% to 60% of the cases, and most of their victims are male. It is worth noting that Chemaly has a history of denying women’s violence.
When Chemaly finally got around to arguing about consent, her argument proved nonsensical:
Many “everyday” assaults, say on U.S .college campuses where 28 percent of women are assaulted, take place because of of people’s differing understandings of consent and their expectations regarding who says “yes” and what “no” means. The point of consent as a norm is to make these situations unambiguous and rare. This means we have to accept that telling rapists not to rape, or to face real consequences, works. As it clearly does.
(Quick note, Chemaly’s example of telling rapists not to rape working is not actually an example of it working. Instead, it is an example of feminists taking correlation for causation without providing any other insight into why the rate of sexual violence fell during the period of time the campaign was active.)
Chemaly failed to note that the vast majority of men do not commit rape. There is no need to make consent the norm because it already is. Most men do not commit rape. This feminist argument about men ignoring consent is a common one, yet it never plays out on the larger social level. If men were so unconcerned with women’s consent, one would expect to see far more cases of sexual violence against women. More so, one would expect to hear and see men talking about ignoring women’s consent openly. We do not because most men, again, do not commit rape. Consent is not an issue for them because they either ask for it or wait until the women give it to them.
In most cases of sexual violence, the drive is not entitlement. If it were, one would again expect those committing the act to express those views publicly because entitled people tend to let others know they feel entitled. Most often the drive is about sexual power, either the desire to humiliate the victim sexually, to act out one’s sexual desires with the victim whether the victim is willing or not, or do both. People who are inclined to commit those kinds of acts are not likely swayed by a campaign because they clearly do not care about the victim’s consent to begin with.
While talking about consent is a wonderful thing to do, it is not going to affect the women and men who want to rape others. Fortunately, that is a small group of people. While they do a great deal of damage, because they are not a large portion of our society, there is no reason to assume that many or most people think like they do.
Unfortunately, Chemaly does not agree:
In the U.S., we have a long and rich historical tradition of the appropriating of people’s bodies by the uncontested powerful. In our near history, where black women were raped day after day after day, rape was an integral part of social and economic order. The legacy of this bubbles occasionally erupts. Similarly, in many contexts still the ability to assault someone sexually is a benefit that comes with a job, a title, a marriage, or simply being a certain kind of man in a deeply misogynistic culture.
Violence is a part of the human experience on all levels. It is going to occur whether we like it or not because it is human nature to take from others what we want and to hurt others to get our way. This is partly why Chemaly has no problem marginalizing male victims to make her arguments. However, most people are not violent and do not condone violence, particularly sexual violence. That a handful of people commit these acts does not mean that an entire culture supports those acts.
Instead of trying to paint the situation as dire and dystopic, Chemaly should acknowledge that for the most part people oppose this kind of behavior. What is true, and this is something that Chemaly only hinted at, is that while people oppose violence, they also do not like to discuss it. People prefer not to deal with these kinds of issues head on. This makes it easier for people to cover up abuse. It also makes it easier for people to create stereotypes about who can be victims, to engage in victim blaming, and to marginalize certain types of victims.
The only way to challenge that is to stop playing politics and talk about the situation honestly. There is no need for doctrinal rhetoric or sexist comments like “men rape.” We can address these problems without pointing fingers or trying to score political cred.