“Young men need to be socialized in such a way that rape is as unthinkable to them as cannibalism.”
The first time I read that quote from Mary Pipher, an American clinical psychologist and author of a number of books, it stopped my reading in its tracks.
The quote was pithy and incisive; though straightforward, it says a lot. The quote’s implication is that if we want to see an end to (or at least reduction of) sexual assault, it’s young men who need to be steered in a new direction in thought; that changing the status quo on sexual assault is a matter of socialization and that sexual assault needs to be understood as fundamentally antithetical to one’s humanity.
That quote is now deeply integrated into the way I speak about sexual assault. I understand the quote as hopeful; it proposes a way that things could be. It doesn’t paint men as the enemy, but envisions young men — the future generations of adult men — as being able to do better than their predecessors in terms of how they think about and react to sexual assault.
The less inspiring side of this is quote is, of course, that in our current context sexual assault is hardly unthinkable. As a society, we opine that sexual assault is a horrific crime and that its perpetrators deserve to be held accountable and punished.
This abhorrence of sexual assault, however, is all too often just talk. We’re inundated by images and accounts of sexual violence that are often cavalier, and regularly offered up as entertainment that is intended to be either titillating or humorous.
We like to think of ourselves as a society that deems sexual assault inhuman and unspeakable, but the reality is that we’re a society that often thinks that women’s behaviour or dress — not rapists — causes rape. We’re a society that prefers to downplay sexual assault as bullying, as we saw in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons.
Last week, we watched the news report that student’s at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) and University of British Columbia had shouted a rape-chant (“n is for no consent”) as part of their frosh activities (media largely referred to the chant in euphemistic terms, saying it referenced “non-consensual sex” rather than using the terms rape or sexual assault).
When called out on the misogynist chant, student leaders at SMU said that the chant had been used for years and that they hadn’t considered its message, only it’s rhythm and rhyme. It’s a lacklustre defence, particularly coming from persons who are attending a liberal arts college to hone their critical thinking skills.
If we, as a society, really believe sexual assault to be as abhorrent as we say we do, situations like the rape-chant at SMU wouldn’t happen. It simply wouldn’t occur to people to base an entire chant off of dehumanizing young women and letting them know that they’re fair game for sexual assault now that they’re (for the most part) living away from home for the first time.
If someone did someone manage to conceive such a chant, it would never be approved for use through administrative channels, and hundreds of individuals would certainly never mindlessly shout it out.
But we don’t walk our talk about the repugnance of sexual assault. We make jokes in which victims of sexual assault are the punchline, we consume media in which sexual violence is eroticized and normalized. We reduce sexual assault to an abstraction that we draw on to seem edgy in our humour or exciting in our stories.
But sexual assault is no abstraction. It is a very real threat to children, women, and men. It is an actual trauma that far too many people have endured and too many live in fear of. Crack a joke about rape — or lead a rape-chant — in front of enough people (or even in front of three people) and chances are one of them has survived sexual trauma.
Sexual assault isn’t an idea to them, it’s a horrific experience that they survived, an experience that society has deep empathy for — but only in theory. In practice, we’ve got a long way to go in aligning our actions with our professed beliefs on the abhorrence of sexual assault.
In other words, we all need to be socialized in such a way that rape and sexual assault are truly as unthinkable to us as cannibalism.
Beth Lyons is the associate director of YWCA Moncton.
This column first appeared in the Times & Transcript.