Sunday Reflections: If We Want to End Sexual Violence, We Have to Change the Way Adults Talk About It
Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence, Rape
Some weeks (months?) ago, the news broke out that a high school near me was embroiled in a horrific sexual violence case. At first, the media kept referring to it as “hazing”. After a lot of push back, the media and community have started to use the terms sexual assault. Hazing in itself is not okay and can often be deadly, but by calling it hazing the language was minimizing the sexual violence that was taking place. This is just one of the many ways I have seen this case discussed that have caused a lot of concern for me.
Before I begin talking about the fall out, let me share what I can about the case. Originally, five students from a team sporting event were arrested for “hazing” fellow team mates in the locker room. This “hazing” involved male team mates violating other male team mates in ways that are too clearly sexual assault and rape.
I’m not here to talk about the case, because at this point it’s an ongoing investigation and what I have heard is all media reports, speculation and rumors. But I am here to talk about the way adults in the community talked about it after the news broke. As often happens, we learned about this via the media and people began to share the news on Facebook. Soon, the comments started flowing and, as always happens, the comments reveal how much of a problem adults and the way that adults view and talk about sexual violence contribute to the problem. We can’t change the culture of sexual abuse until we change the way adults talk to and about sexual violence.
Of course one of the first statements that started pouring out was: BOYS WILL BE BOYS. This is a false and harmful statement. A vast majority of boys and men never sexually violate others, because they can in fact practice self control and restraint. Make no mistake, sexual violence happens a lot, but this idea that “boys will be boys” is a harmful beginning point. It excuses male behavior by suggesting that men are primarily oriented towards violence and that they lack the ability to learn, grown and practice self control. Not only is this statement untrue and harmful, but men should be angry at what this presupposes about them. Men can and should be held accountable for their actions. These boys made a choice to violate others, they should be held responsible for that choice.
Many other respondents tried to excuse the specifics of this case by suggesting that THIS HAPPENS EVERYWHERE. While I hope that is statistically untrue and that a majority of high schools don’t have rampant sexual abuse happening in their locker rooms, I want to know why the adults felt comfortable shrugging this off as ‘it happens everywhere” instead of demanding to know if it does, in fact, happen everywhere, then how can we stop it because it’s not okay. Even if it happens somewhere else, why are we willing to accept it as happening in our communities and to our children? If it does happen at other communities, what can we do in our local community to change the culture and make our kids safe? A child who wants to participate in sports should not have to be willing to submit themselves to abuse in order to participate. That is an unacceptable starting point. Students involved in extracurricular events should be held to a higher standard, not a lesser one.
Many commenters reported that this had in fact been going on in this specific school for years and others wanted to know if that was true, then why hadn’t someone spoken out sooner. WHY DIDN’T THEY REPORT IT SOONER is a very common talking point. Well, it turns out that some may have but, as frequently happens when reporting sexual violence, their complaints were ignored. But the comments themselves reveal why those who are victims of abuse don’t come forward. Revealing abuse in this type of setting often puts the victims in an even more dangerous position. Now they must navigate the hallways of their school with a target on their back as the investigation happens and the popular kids – and the abusers are often the popular kids – harass, bully, and vilify them. Or they are pulled out for their safety and everything about their lives is suddenly upended. And if their families stay in the community, they are forced to live among a life-time reminders and triggers. There are so many very real systemica barriers to victims of sexual violence coming forward and reporting. And that doesn’t even get into the shame, guilt, self-blame and questioning that can happen before a victim is even ready to come forward. There are both personal and systemic barriers that can cause a delay in when an event happens and when it is reported. And truthfully, statistically we know that a large number of victims will never report because those barriers are very real.
Especially when a sports team is involved, the victim who comes forward can be seen as a traitor because the sad truth is, we live in a culture that puts winning and sports above individual suffering. A lot of wrong doing is swept under the rug to keep the momentum of a winning sports team going because they produce revenue and positive PR. And make no mistake, PR is very important to schools and communities. The rating and success of local schools helps to attract new business, and new business equals growth, and growth equals money. The book MOXIE by Jennifer Matthieu does a good job of highlighting what can happen when students try to change the culture of sexual violence in a high school.
There has also been some question of which adults knew what and when, and whether or not things were covered up. A lot of people have come to these educators defense and suggested that this is a one time mistake and overall, they are good people. This is something we see again and again when we talk about racism and sexual violence, the explaining away of abusive behavior because overall, this person is really a good person. I can’t speak to what these adults knew and when, but if they knew and failed to act to protect the victims immediately, then they failed these children and may have engaged in criminal behavior (teachers are mandated reporters) and they don’t deserve to be in this position again. When I and other parents send their children to school, we need the full confidence of knowing that teachers and staff will protect our children, respond to their concerns, and follow the rules of the district and the law that has been established to help keep our kids safe.
As someone who works with teens, I am frequently put in the position of having to determine how to respond when I have concerns about a teen’s safety. It is, in fact, a hard position to be in. As a public librarian, I’m not a mandated reporter and I often don’t have enough information, but I have gone to my administration frequently and said here’s my concern and we worked out how to respond and report. I have made many a call to either the police or the children’s protective services. I do not in any way seek to diminish how hard it is to be put in these positions because I have been often and it is no easy task. There are situations that I have been involved in that will probably haunt me until the day I die as having to wrestle with the safety of others is a hard position to be in. But I’m also a mother and a sexual violence survival and I want our go to response to always be: protect the children immediately.
As I read through the comments on several articles around this case, I was continually appalled by the way the adults talked about these events. My heart broke for the victims that might wander into these online forums and read what others were saying about this case (and I really hope that they don’t). And as always happens when I read the comments on reports of sexual violence, my heart broke again and again for the way that we blame and talk about victims, the way we fail to understand the hurdles that victims must face to come forward and be taken seriously, and the way that their life is shifted not just by the abuse itself, but by the way that others respond when they do come forward and ask for help to make their world safer. Sexual violence victims are abused over and over again by the ways that we talk about sexual violence in our culture.
And in this post, I continue to use the term victims as opposed to survivors because these teens are in the thick of it. They are victims. One day, they will work through the events of what happened to them and may choose to label themselves as survivors, but this is new and real and raw and we are just learning that they are victims. They are victims that by all accounts this community has failed and is continuing to fail.
I have worked with teens in public libraries for 24 years and this is the first time that I personally have heard about a case like this and so close to home. This school is not my child’s school nor is it a school in the district in which I work and serve, but it’s not a story in a YA novel – it’s a very real community that affects the lives of people I love and respect. And as I read through the comments all I could think was this: we still have so much work to do to break down the toxic ways in which we respond to and talk about real life sexual violence. Yes, talking about it with our kids and helping to change it for the next generation is an important part of the process, but we have to also do the work of changing the way that adults talk about and respond to reports of sexual violence.
Some of my friends did a really good job of doing this work. They went online and repeatedly used the term sexual assault every time someone tried to downplay this as merely playful hazing. Many others reminded commenters that boys will be boys is an unacceptable statement. And these are the things we must do, over and over again. Use language and challenge others to use language that speak truth to the horrific nature of crimes of sexual violence. Call the language out, redirect the language, make sure that headlines and comments focus on the true nature of these crimes. We must do the work to continually challenge the way that we talk about sexual violence to help change the culture (when and if you can, I know that if you are a survivor yourself that this can be challenging.)
Things we can do:
- Call out problematic language
- Call out slut shaming
- Call out victim blaming
- Tell our family, friends and coworkers that jokes about rape and sexual violence are not okay. When someone tries to make a joke, point out that the joke is not acceptable.
- Contact the media immediately when we see problematic headlines or reporting. For example, make sure they use active voice which highlights that sexual violence is a choice of the abuser instead of focusing on passive voice.
- Redirect any questions or comments about the victim back onto the abuser. If someone says why were they there, re-direct and ask why did the abuser think it was okay to abuse someone.
- Arm yourself with facts from RAINN and other organizations. Facts are important when discussing issues.
- Familiarize yourself with the issues surrounding reporting, the obstacles for victims, and the many reasons why victims postpone or choose to never report. Knowing this information helps when people ask why they didn’t report right away.
- Understand and remind others that everyone responds to sexual violence differently and no one owes us their story or their advocacy. Many survivors will choose to become advocates, but others don’t and that is also okay. Everyone gets to heal and talk about their experiences in their own way.
- Make sure where you work has a solid sexual harassment/violence policy in place and that all staff are trained on the policy.
Systemic change calls for systemic solutions. We have to address the issues on as many fronts as possible. Lots of people are doing great work writing for and talking about these issues with kids and teens, but it’s not enough. We as adults have to change the conversation among ourselves.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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