The more traditional gender beliefs are, the more sexual assaults there are.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Kate Rohdenburg routinely deals with a problem most people don’t like to hear about. So it wasn’t a surprise a few months ago when a woman on the other end of the telephone told her, “I know it happens, but I don’t want to think about it.” Rohdenburg’s avocation is to change that mindset, and she’s out in the thirteen communities of the Upper Valley every day, educating men, women and teens about cultural norms that engender sexual violence.
Since 2007, Rohdenburg has worked as the Education and Prevention Coordinator for WISE, a non-profit that offers crisis intervention, support services and emergency shelter to victims of domestic and sexual violence. Last year, WISE and Ottauquechee Community Partnership jointly procured grant funding for a Healthy Teens initiative in Woodstock. Rohdenburg heads the project, which will develop programs and activities that promote positive, respectful relationships.
Unfortunately, “sexual violence is a reality everywhere,” says Rohdenburg. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men have been victims of rape or attempted rape. Assailants are typically men, but the notion that they are deranged strangers with guns or knives is a myth. Almost always, victims know their attackers, who use power, control, manipulation, and threats, or their victim’s incapacitation, rather than physical weapons. And often, they molest with impunity. Studies suggest that most rapes (between 64 and 96 percent) are never reported to police. Research conducted by Dr. David Lisak of the University of Massachusetts found that 6% of men in a study of college males admitted to behaviors that met the definition of rape or attempted rape. Even though on average these men had each victimized four women, none were ever charged with a crime.
Rohdenburg believes that the root cause of sexual violence is a value system that promotes women as sexual objects, and that fails to obviate inappropriate behaviors. “The more traditional the gender beliefs are, the more sexual assaults there are,” she says; too many boys still learn to feel entitled, too many girls continue to measure their worth through sexuality. She adds, “we need to start talking about the way our culture views sex.”
And Rohdenburg is talking, a lot, to both teens and adults. Since January, she’s been visiting health classes at Woodstock Union High School. “Kids want to talk honestly,” she says of their round tables on healthy relationships. Their discussions about the elements of consent, for instance, are aimed at creating social norms that don’t tolerate sexual violence or accept even subtle forms of harassment. Rohdenburg helps her classes work through examples of behaviors that reinforce sexual stereotypes. “You’re with friends, you tell a joke,” she hypothesizes, the joke is derogatory to women, but you think it’s harmless because “you don’t believe it, you see it as just a joke.” Most of your friends laugh it off, but the down side is that the one guy in the group who does believe the joke thinks everyone else does too. “More people need to call that out as not ok,” instead of laughing or staying silent, she emphasizes.
Talking with teens is particularly important, Rohdenburg feels, because they are immersed in entertainment media and the accompanying plethora of messages about sexuality. A Kaiser Family Foundation study last year found that 8 to 18 year olds spend an average of over 7 hours and 30 minutes every day watching television and using MP3 players, cell phones, and computers. It’s shocking how much sexually explicit material teens are exposed to, Rohdenburg says, “without any conversation about what it means, or how it is supposed to relate to them.”
Rohdenburg is also working with the Woodstock Task Force on Domestic and Sexual Violence to assess community needs and create a broad-based plan for implementation next year. Positive messages “have to come from all around,” she says, not just from the schools. The last months of listening to Task Force members’ opinions and understanding their sometimes differing perspectives has been an important process for her. She’s also interviewed residents to learn about their thinking on sexual violence. She hopes even more people will get involved by sharing their views with her, and/or attending Task Force meetings, which are open to the public. Rohdenburg sees her job as helping the all segments of the community find their roles because, she says, “really great communities are going to step up and take on the issue and do something helpful.”