Sexual assault: a new face on an old problem

As rage over sexual assaults explodes on the global stage, Canadian youth face new challenges in battling an old problem: damaging attitudes that blame the victim.

In the United States, Steubenville’s “rape crew” and its self-documented assaults hint at a changing culture of sexual violence on this continent.

Modern Women

“Women are still punished for being sexual, or for being confident sexually,” says Nicole Pietsch, a Counsellor at Sexual Assault & Violence Intervention Services (SAVIS) in Halton. While the image of the confident, sexy, modern woman is rampant in the media, Pietsch suggests it’s something Western culture is still ambivalent about.

This might account for a 2011 comment by a Toronto constable classifying women as the agents of their own sexual assault, suggesting they should “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

Similarly blaming the victim, Indian lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma said in an interview this week, “Until today, I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady.” Sharma is the defense lawyer for the accused in the India bus gang-rape that killed a 23-year-old woman.

The freedoms women are granted are often used against them by their abusers. A 2008 study looked at the prevalence and effects of rape myths in headlines, detailing how a woman’s number of past sexual partners was used to discredit her sexual assault claims against Kobe Bryant.

Pietsch recognizes the myth. “If you’re a girl who’s had a couple different sexual partners, you’ve invited the attention or aggression of other guys.”

The study points to one of the founding myths of  Western culture as a force in continued rape myths – the need to believe that good things happen to good people… and bad things happen to bad people.

Internet & Media

Rape myths circulate freely on the internet. Some of the most pervasive myths are that the victim deserved the assault, or that men cannot control themselves.

In cases like Canadian teen Amanda Todd, the media failed to focus on how she was blamed for the sexual bullying she received .

Accountability is lost in the forum of the internet.

“It’s given a new face to an older problem,” says Pietsch. “It’s created an environment where people who say things that are victim-blaming or judgemental [about] sexual violence are less likely to be held accountable.”

As social lives span both real life and cyberspace, she explains that the “world gets smaller and smaller, and [the victims] feel powerless.”

The Steubenville and Todd stories indicate that the ability to record, view and comment on the details of others’ lives has become common.

“Voyeurism has become really normalized in other contexts– [there are] all sorts of reality shows where the idea of sharing your unpleasant, private stuff is normalized,” says Pietsch. Whether this encourages youth to post their exploits or not, they are used to the concept.

And while ideas of sexuality are marketed to youth, concepts like BDSM, or books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey muddy the waters when it comes to what women should want or expect in a relationship. While exploration occurs in the context of healthy relationships, it can get tricky if violence and aggression are marketed as an ideal.


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