Recognizing and preventing unhealthy, and dangerous, behaviors.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Consider this scenario, and ask yourself what you would do. Two young women go to a party. Beer and vodka flow freely, one of the women drinks heavily. Eventually, a young man approaches her, a nice-looking guy. The two dance and talk, they smile. After a while, the man puts his arm around the woman and they walk toward a stairway that leads to some private rooms. The other woman has been watching, she knows that her friend is intoxicated, and she’s pretty sure that the man plans a sexual encounter. What should she do?
It is a myth that the perpetrators of sexual violence are deranged strangers wielding knives or guns. Studies show that in over 80 percent of rapes, the victim and the rapist know each other; most often, the rapist’s weapons are power, control, manipulation, threats, or the victim’s incapacitation. And sexual assault is a pervasive and under-reported crime. The United States Department of Justice estimates that nearly 21 million Americans, mostly women and girls, have been raped, and predicts that one in six women and one in 33 men will be victims of sexual assault during their lives. Embarrassment and shame, or fear of retribution, can overwhelm victims, who often avoid reporting abuse to authorities because they feel won’t be believed, or helped. An estimated 64 to 96 percent of rapes are not reported. In 2010, nearly 1,300 victims of sexual violence in Vermont sought assistance through partners of the support organization Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Last Wednesday, the Woodstock Task Force to Prevent Domestic and Sexual Violence convened what it hopes will be the first of a series of public dialogues promoting healthy relationships and establishing social norms that deter sexual violence. The group, which includes residents, town officials, and community leaders, has been meeting periodically for the last few years to educate themselves. Now they want to get their message out to their neighbors. “Our goal is to work to build a community wide standard that we do not tolerate domestic or sexual violence,” says the group’s Interim Chair, Woodstock resident Bob Williamson.
The root cause of most sexual violence is cultural, a value system that too often objectifies girls and women, promotes aggressiveness in boys and men, and fails to curb inappropriate behaviors, says Kate Rohdenburg, a member of the Task Force, and the Prevention and Education Coordinator for WISE of the Upper Valley, a Lebanon based non-profit that provides crisis intervention and support services for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
“The research shows,” she says, “that the more traditional the gender role beliefs are, the more sexual assaults there are.”
Combating the problem means breaking down those rigid and conventional ideas, and talking, human-to-human, about the ways our culture views sex.
Wednesday’s Task Force meeting focused on concrete tools to build a mindset that recognizes that some once condoned or accepted behaviors are in fact forms of sexual violence. The catalyst for discussion was a thirty-minute film of Dr. Harry Brod’s lecture, Asking For It: The Ethics and Erotics of Sexual Consent.
In the short video, the prolific author on masculinity studies and Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa leads a group of college-aged men and women through an exercise to describe the responsibility of any person who initiates sex, male or female, to obtain their potential partner’s assent. It’s what Dr. Brod calls the “affirmative consent standard.” The underlying principle, he says, is that consent for sexual activity must be explicit, it cannot be assumed based on the absence of a clear-cut rejection.
“Consent is something the other person has to give you,” says Brod, “and if the other person doesn’t give it, you don’t have it, no matter what you think the rules are supposed to be, or what you think you are entitled to.”
It must be definitive verbal affirmation, he adds, body language, for example, is just too difficult to interpret. Furthermore, consent to one act does not imply consent to any other act, and an initiator impaired by drugs or alcohol doesn’t have capacity to ascertain another’s consent, and a possible partner who is impaired isn’t able to give consent.
The benefit of the unambiguous affirmative consent standard is that when it is applied, there is no sexual assault. The challenge is ingraining it, making it normal and expected behavior, particularly among teens and young adults. “Their concept of risk taking and consequence is very unformed,” says Laird Bradley, Task Force member and father of two young children, “so it is even more critical that kids understand what their responsibilities are in this highly stimulating world.”
WISE’s Rohdenburg also sees a need to develop, in people of all ages, a way of thinking that will prompt them to be active, responsible bystanders who are willing to “call out” inappropriate behaviors and, in some situations, intervene. This component of altering social norms can be as simple as expressing distaste for jokes that denigrate women, or for parents, opening up candid, genuine conversations with their children about respectful relationships. But Rohdenburg also advocates a more active role.
“Being a good person means that if I suspect someone is being hurt or is hurting someone, I do something,” she says, “it is part of being an ethical human.”
The affirmative consent standard provides a basis “for recognizing things that are not okay,” she adds.
In the scenario of the woman watching her intoxicated friend go off with a man who is probably planning a sexual encounter, Rohdenburg says she would get involved, but also says that her help could take many forms. She’d enlist the assistance of others nearby, to brainstorm, quickly, about options. She might go to the guy and say “hey, I need a pong partner,” or get someone else to distract him so that she could speak with her friend. Or, Rohdenburg says, she might choose to be straight forward, and just tell the man that her friend is too drunk to consent and that if he persists, she’ll report him to authorities. “Get involved where ever on the spectrum you feel comfortable,” she says.
There was both bad and good in the response of some Woodstock area community members after a sexual assault was reported in a nearby town last fall. Two 16 year-old boys allegedly lured a 14 year-old classmate into a car, for a quick ride, they told her. Instead, they reportedly took the girl, who counted the boys among her friends, to a remote sand pit, and sexually assaulted her. In the wake of the incident, Rohdenburg says, some in the community blamed victim for what happened, saying she shouldn’t have gotten into the car, and expressed unwillingness to hold the accused perpetrators accountable.
“First and foremost for me is that I expect there to be a culture where it is not okay to say out loud things that are victim blaming,” she says, “the same way that we no longer say out loud things that are blatantly racist.”
It is a positive, however, that the victim had courage enough to come forward, something that must have been excruciatingly difficult to do. And a female friend of the girl, on seeing the victim upset and disheveled after the incident, is said to have encouraged her to come forward and to get help, and reportedly confronted at least one of the accused perpetrators. “That was an amazing first response from the friend,” says Rohdenburg, and one that models behavior of an active, responsible bystander. Charges are still pending against the two boys.
Making fundamental changes in mindset requires engaging and educating the community. The Vermont Senate and House of Representatives recognized the role of learning in preventing sexual violence when they passed Act 1, An Act Relating to Improving Vermont’s Sexual Abuse Response System, in March of 2009. The legislation calls for “developmentally appropriate instruction” for students about healthy and respectful relationships as part of required comprehensive health education. And, school boards now must provide training for all employees about preventing, identifying, and reporting child sexual abuse; parents must have the opportunity to receive the training information too. As a result, Rohdenburg will hopefully be facilitating trainings this winter and spring for teachers throughout the Windsor Central Supervisory Union. She has also been working part time in the Woodstock Union Middle School and High School for the last couple of years as part of the Centers for Disease Control-funded Woodstock Healthy Teens program.