Sexual violence is a huge problem in our society. Sexual assault is not something that happens to other people elsewhere but is something that has happened to a significant number of people in any community, group or setting. Yet sexual violence is rarely talked about, the extent of it is not widely known and outside the feminist movement it is seldom taken up as a political issue.
—- This article sprang from a case of rape in a community of activists which, in the various meetings, workshops and discussions that followed, forced people to try to deal with a problem which is usually hidden. The whole issue proved to be quite divisive. It became clear to anyone listening that sexual violence is something of which a shocking number of women have their own personal experience.
The hurt and anger felt by some were compounded by the reactions of others, which were often distressingly insensitive, inappropriate, and inadequate. It seemed as though sexist myths about rape were just as common in a community of activists wanting to change the world as in mainstream society. If something positive came from the whole process it was that for some of us this was a real learning experience and it politicised people about the issue.
Many of the ideas in this article come from RAG discussions which tried to understand some of the reasons why sexual violence occurs. This article begins by looking at statistics which detail the widespread prevalence of sexual violence in our society, followed by a discussion on some of the possible causes.
Sexual violence comes from the unequal balance of power between people, and in particular between men and women. This article concentrates on sexual violence against women. It discusses the widely held sexist myths about rape which, along with our gender role socialisation, contribute to a culture which encourages sexual violence. Finally there is some (hopefully constructive) criticism of common reactions to sexual violence, in particular within the anarchist community in
Prevalence of Sexual Violence in Our Society
The true prevalence of sexual violence is unknown and is difficult to estimate accurately due mainly to extremely high levels of under-reporting. However, there have been numerous studies done to determine what percentage of the population has experienced sexual abuse. These are often by means of anonymous surveys of people chosen at random from the population. The best estimates from most international studies indicate that 14 – 25 per cent of adult women have been raped during their lifetime. In the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) study, which surveyed over 3000 people, more than four in ten of women reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime, as did over a quarter of men surveyed. For a significant proportion of men the abuse took place in childhood, whereas for women the rates of childhood and of adult abuse were the same. For adult sexual assault alone, the figures were one in five women and one in ten men.
Sexual abuse is a gendered crime. Girls and women are considerably more likely to be subjected to serious sexual assault than boys and men, although theprevalence of sexual abuse against men is nevertheless alarmingly high. The perpetrators of sexual violence however are almost exclusively male: 98 per centof abusers of female children are male. Of male children 86 per cent of abusers are male. For adult rapes around 98 per cent are committed by males.
Sexist Culture and Rape Myths
Why does sexual violence occur? We live in a sexist culture that in many ways tolerates, and even accepts as normal, sexual violence. Historically, rape was not even seen as a crime against the person who was raped but against their male owner:
“The offence of rape was traditionally defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse by a man with a woman…. The definition of rape has its roots in earlier times, when it was regarded as a crime against property. The word derives from the Latin rapere (to seize), as the crime was seen to have the effect of forcibly seizing valuable property from the male owner, ie, the father or husband of the female victim. Historically, rape was deemed to have occurred only where there had been emission of semen within the vagina, which put the paternity of a subsequent child born to the women into question.”
Presumably if a woman who had no male “owners” was raped, and there was thus no potential paternity and inheritance issue, then it would not have been considered a crime. Rape within marriage has only been recognised as a crime in the Irish legal system since 1991. This is a reflection of the tolerance that still exists in our society towards rape, particularly in intimate relationships.
Common understandings of rape and sexual assault are informed by widely accepted cultural myths. The SAVI report defines rape myths as “personally held beliefs that may promote or condone sexual abuse and also hinder the disclosure and recovery process for those who have been abused.” They are false beliefs about rape and sexuality that disadvantage women in particular and are at odds with the experience of people who have been raped.
One common rape myth which is particularly offensive is the widely held belief that women often make up false accusations of rape. There is no evidence of there being more false reports of rape than of any other crime. In fact it is the reverse that is true insofar as study after study has shown that, for a variety of reasons, including the stigma and shame often attached to sexual violence, most people who have been raped are silent about what has happened to them. The SAVI study reports that one of their most striking findings was that sexual violence was a completely private and hidden matter for almost half of those affected. Yet the same report found that four in ten of study participants felt that “accusations of rape are often false”. Given such general skepticism about accusations of rape it is hardly surprising that fears of not being believed often act to effectively silence victims of rape.
This prejudice can be seen on an institutional level in the Irish judicial system with the “corroboration warning”. This is a warning traditionally given in a rape trial by the judge to the jury that it is dangerous to convict the accused on the victim’s evidence alone. The corroboration rule, which only applied to sexual assault trials, specified that the judge had to give the corroboration warning in these cases. Although this warning is no longer mandatory in
Until recently and unlike in any other type of trial, evidence of the victim’s prior sexual history was admissible without restriction in rape trials. Again the motivation was to discredit the person who was raped. Although it is now harder to introduce such evidence in court it is still common for people in general to see a woman’s sexual history as somehow relevant when deciding whether she is telling the truth about a rape. The misogynistic logic behind this line of thought follows the age-old double standard that divides women into virgins and whores, and reserves a sort of respect only for the former.
Women who “sleep around” can’t really be raped it seems, or if they are, they were “asking for it”. Take for example the Supreme Court decision in
Preconceptions of what constitutes “real rape” excludes many types of rape which happen more frequently than the classic “real rape”. “When people hear of a specific incident in which a woman says she was raped, they look at the incident, compare it to their idea of a ‘real rape’ and often decide that the woman was not ‘really raped’. The classic ‘real rape’ for many people is rape by a stranger who uses a weapon, an assault done at night, outside (in a dark alley) with a lot of violence, resistance by the woman (it is always a woman in ‘real rape’) and, therefore, severe wounds and signs of struggle. In fact, in every respect except one – the time of day – every element of this scenario is missing in most rapes. More that half of all rapes are committed by someone known to the person, the vast majority do not involve a weapon or severe injury, most occur indoors in either the victim’s or the offender’s home. These are the assaults which are dismissed or minimised.” Again, although it is in fact rare for a woman to sustain physical injuries, the absence of such injuries is often used to discredit her accusation of rape.
Female/Male Socialisation and Sexual Violence as a Men’s Issue
One of the main reasons rape is often not recognised as such is because of the normalisation of sexual coercion in intimate relationships in our society. Forced sex through physically violent coercion can clearly be seen as rape. Sex forced through verbal or emotional coercion however can result in situations which people don’t recognise as rape because some level of coercion is perceived as normal. There is a relationship between the construction of masculinity and sexual assault. “Men have been taught to relate to the world in terms of dominance and control, and they have been taught that violence is an acceptable method of maintaining control, resolving conflicts, and expressing anger.” Women on the other hand are socialised, among other things, to try to be “nice” and to please others. Our traditional cultural value system about male and female sexuality dictates that men should be sexually aggressive and women passive; that men have uncontrollable sexual urges and that women shouldn’t really want or enjoy sex too much; that it is up to women to set the boundaries of sexual intimacy (even though these limits are often not respected).
Many of us learn growing up that we can avoid unwanted male attention if we are careful enough and that if anything goes wrong, it must be our fault. “Blaming the victim releases the man who commits the violence from the responsibility for what he has done.”
This gender socialisation combined with the power inequalities that exist between women and men lead often to unequal sexual relationships – particularly in younger people. Women are most at risk of rape between the ages of 16 and 25. Generally, age has been found to be the strongest predictor of risk of sexual violence. The SAVI report discusses another survey carried out in
Research indicates that a disturbingly high level of young men condone sexual violence. To take just a few examples: In one north amercian study 50 per cent of high school boys believed it was acceptable: “for a guy to hold a girl down and force her to have sexual intercourse in instances such as when she gets him sexually exited or changes her mind”. In a
If in our culture boys/men often feel they have a right to sex in certain situations, the flip side to this is that girls/women sometimes feel they do not have the right to say no. There are cultural messages learnt by young people growing up which are extremely disempowering for young women. Take for example the message to girls that it’s nothing short of a mortal sin to be a so-called tease or to “lead someone on” (I mean what exactly is being a “tease” and why is it generally only applied to girls/women?). This sort of message can lead to situations where girls and women are left feeling they don’t really have full rights of ownership of their own body or that these rights are to some extent relinquished under certain circumstances.
Sexual violence by men against women would not occur were it not for the power inequalities that exist between women and men. It is both a consequence and reinforcement of power disparities between individuals and in society.
This hierarchy of power leads inevitably to intimidation and abuse. The disparity in power between women and men is the reason, perhaps, that levels of serious sexual crimes committed against women remain similar from childhood to adulthood whereas for men the risk decreases three-fold from childhood to adult life.
Also, in childhood, the risks are lower for boys than they are for girls. There is also evidence that marginalised groups, such as the homeless and prostitutes, have a higher risk of serious sexual assault than the general population. Some estimate the percentage of female prostitutes raped as a direct result of their involvement in prostitution to be as high as 70%.
Some Responses to Sexual Violence in an Anarchist Community
Imagine a society where half the population is black, and half white. In this society there is a terrible history of oppression against black people and although things have improved somewhat it remains a racist society (not so hard to imagine I suppose). Imagine then that in this society some four out of ten black people have been physically assaulted by whites at some point in their life. What would the white lefties have to say about this? Would they ignore it completely? Would they refuse to see it as a political issue or perhaps avoid responsibility by labelling it a “black person’s issue”? When such violence occurs within their own lefty community would most whites prioritise protecting the rights of the white accused over those of the black victim and treat with scepticism the accusations of the black person – after all you’ve got to be careful, they often tend to invent such accusations these dodgy blacks.
When it comes to the problem of sexual violence these are the sort of reactions that are common, even in a highly politicised group of people such as anarchists. Sexual violence is rarely seen as an important political issue and tackling and fighting this problem has never been part of the struggle for revolutionary change in society. In the hierarchy of oppressions that exists in the libertarian movement in
When a rape did occur there were those who held tenaciously to the argument that a rapist is innocent until proven guilty and as there was no concrete evidence that the rape had occurred then essentially nothing could be done.
Given that sexual violence in the vast majority of cases occurs in a private setting, with no witnesses, no physical injuries, and therefore no proof, then the effect of this sort of response is a clear protection of rapists and the denial of any sort of justice for survivors of sexual assault. Of course, it would be much easier for everyone if somehow there were proof and undeniable evidence of some sort, but the reality of sexual violence is that this will rarely ever be the case. Yet, people seem often to refuse to deal with this reality and in doing so are incapable of coming up with real solutions to very real problems.
To insist on proof means always giving the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrator and essentially accuses the rape victim of lying until it can be proven otherwise. Since proving you are telling the truth is not going to be possible this sends out the unequivocal message that the anarchist community protects rapists over survivors of rape. It should also be noted that it is extremely rare for someone to admit to rape. For example, from the records kept by the Dublin rape crises centre of cases where a rape was reported to the garda’: in both 2003 and 2004 the rapist pleaded guilty in 0% of the cases – this includes those who were convicted in court and thus where all evidence undeniably pointed to rape. In the discussions that arose around the case in
Although it’s certainly not true to say it was only women who took a feminist approach, nor that all women took a feminist approach, there was a definite and perceptible sexist bias from a significant number of anarchist men.
There was also a lack of understanding on issues surrounding rape and a total unwillingness to learn or be self-critical. For example, for some of the discussions organised about sexual violence it seemed that those who most needed to go were the very ones least likely to attend. It was jokingly suggested that in order to attract more men to meetings about sexual violence the only way would be to trick them into going by re-labelling the meeting “Anarchists against the Occupation of Iraq”.
Breaking the silence around the issue and talking about sexual violence is an important first step in trying to stop it. Discussion groups play an important role in conscious-raising and help in realising that one’s own personal story is similar to many others’. Women-only discussion groups can provide a space where women feel comfortable talking about sexual violence but men-only or mixed discussion groups are needed too as it is important that men take more responsibility for an issue which is as much, if not more, a men’s issue as a women’s issue.
If, as a community of activists, we have to deal with another case of sexual assault the priority should be support of the victim. Certainly some sort of process which enables both sides of the story to be heard should be put in place. However, in the case of conflicting versions of the truth I think people have to make a judgment on who they believe and act on that. To refuse to make a decision and act, due to lack of evidence, is not a neutral stance and sides unambiguously, and always, with the perpetrator.
As anarchists we need to take up sexual violence as a political issue and for example raise awareness of the problem and discuss issues surrounding it in our publications etc. An important part of our struggle should be the fight for a society where kids are raised so that when they are growing up they respect the rights of others and learn that it is important to care about whether the person with whom they are sexually involved consents or not. It is also essential that they know without any doubt that only they have the right to their own body.
The SAVI Report. Sexual Abuse and Violence in
Written by Hannah McGee, Rebecca Garavan, Mairead de Barra, Joanne Byrne and Ronan Conroy of the Health Services Research Centre at the Royal College of Surgeons in
Sponsored by the
Published by Liffey Press, 2002. Page 8.
Ibid, page 87
Ronald Frey and Peter Douglas. “What is it about Men That Makes Them Do The Things They Do”. In Proceedings of the 2002 AIC Conference, Without consent :confronting adult sexual violence.
Kicking and Screaming. Ivana Bacik. (O’Brien Press,
The SAVI Report, page 213
Ibid, page 278.
Kicking and Screaming. Ivana Bacik. Page 147.
BBC news. Friday, 17 February 2006.
Keith Gilbert, Prostitutes’ Collective of
In Proceedings of the 2002 AIC Conference, Without consent : confronting adult sexual violence.
Joanne Spangaro, Women’s Health and Sexual Assault Eduction and Resource Unit. “Rape and ‘Real Rape'”. In Proceedings of the 2002 AIC Conference, Without consent : confronting adult sexual violence.
Our Bodies, Ourselves. The
Ibid, page 161.
Rickert, V.J., Weimann, C.M. (1998) “Date Rape Among Adolescents and Young Adults.” J Pediatric Adolescent Gynecology, 1998; 11: 167-175.
The SAVI Report, Page 12.
Cited in “Rape and ‘Real Rape'”. Joanne Spangaro.
Helen Lenskyj, “An Analysis of Violence Against Women: A Manual for Educators and Administrators,”
Cited in “Preventing Adult Sexual Assault: Violence, gender and power, and the role of education.”
Irene Tomaszewski, Victorian Community Council Against Violence.
The SAVI Report, Page 230