Yesterday was International Women’s Day. An opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women around the world, and to inspire them to reach their potential. There’s a lot to celebrate - improved educational and professional opportunities for women and girls, more equitable social norms, and fairer legal treatment of women. These changes have been brought about through tireless work, often at devastating personal cost, of both women and men, which must not be forgotten. But equally, this is no time for complacency. If there could ever be a “finishing line” for this issue, it has not yet been reached, and there’s no time like the present to refuel for another push forwards.
Sexual violence is one area where there is a particular need for attention, in Australia as much as anywhere. As a popular concept, it remains badly misunderstood, especially where it concerns sexual violence within partnerships. Most of us have a fairly clear idea of what we think rape is. Forced sex, without the consent of one party. Most of us also have a ready idea of what sexual harassment is. The unwelcome touch or comment, the offensive poster or text message.
But sexual violence is not an “either/or” proposition, and it isn’t always so readily recognised. It occurs, like other forms of violence, on a continuum, in various shades of grey. Imagine a couple in a long-term, committed relationship. He might start to touch her, she moves his hand away. He puts it back. She moves it. He puts it back. She says no. He says she’s so sexy and puts it back. After 15 minutes of this, she’s so distressed and riven with guilt that she stops pushing the hand away. Rape? Not exactly. Consensual sex? Not exactly.
The underlying problem is that too often the emotional and physical aspects of sex (and sexual violence) continue to be conceptualised and treated in isolation. “Having sex” is most obviously understood as a physical action. But as long as there is more than one (conscious, sober) person involved, it is inevitably an emotional activity on some level as well. Feelings get engaged. Not necessarily “love”, or a sugar-coated psychological ideal - but some sort of awareness beyond brute sensation. It’s what sets humans apart. And it’s also what makes it so difficult to recognise and treat the sexual violence which exists somewhere between consent and rape.
If we want to get serious about achieving and maintaining equality in our society, it isn’t enough to deal only with the more “clear cut” issues such as pay parity and child care. The foggier, more subjective, problems must be dealt with as well by policy makers and by each of us personally.
There are three things which could be done to address the problem of sexual violence. First, treatment and education programs need to stop conceptualising sex as primarily, or only, a physical activity. Practicing “safe sex” needs to mean not only thinking about appropriate contraception and STDs, but also being aware of and having the skills to manage the emotional issues.
Second, sex must not be used to sell everything from cars to toothpaste to chocolate to magazines. Of course there is room, and in fact a necessity, for talking about sex openly and including it as an aspect of public and private discourse. But where popular culture is so imbued with (idealised) sexual imagery that many men and women conceive of their sum personal value in direct relation to their sexual attractiveness, there’s a problem.
Third, it needs to be recognised that sexual violence interacts constantly with broader social dynamics, and that it’s not just a problem for those who experience or perpetrate it. It’s everyone’s problem. The social and economic costs of mental and physical health impacts, of subsequent secondary victimisation of other family members, even of lost workplace productivity, mean no one can afford to ignore it or to tacitly condone it through silence and inaction.
Most of all, what is needed is a consistent, holistic and realistic understanding of what both healthy and unhealthy sexual practices are about, and how to go about achieving the one and avoiding the other. Simple solutions are a superficial cop out. This issue needs to be handled with the sophistication of thought that its complexities deserve. Just saying “no”, just doesn’t cut it.
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