We must talk about sexual violence in all of its forms

For the CDT

This column is the third in a row I’ve written related to the amazing #MeToo cultural moment in which we find ourselves.

But there is so much to be learned as we, as a society, engage in a conversation about sexual violence in all its forms, that three monthly columns doesn’t seem like too many. In the columns in November and December, I touched on two critical issues that often get lost in discussions of sexual violence — power and personal context. We’ll circle back around to power shortly, but first let me explain what I mean by personal context.

In her powerful speech at the Golden Globes on Jan. 7, Oprah Winfrey said: “It’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed, bills to pay and dreams to pursue.

“They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers. And farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, and engineering and medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics, and they’re our soldiers in the military.”

The experience of sexual violence cuts across all racial, ethnic, religious, socio-economic and, yes, gender lines. But each person experiencing sexual violence experiences it in ways made unique by their particular context.

For example, a recent story on NPR reported that people with intellectual disabilities were seven times more likely to experience sexual violence than others in the population. Unless we understand how the realities of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities serve to make them more vulnerable to sexual violence, we will not understand their experience of violence nor how to interrupt or prevent it.

Personal context matters.

The options available for help and the consequences of choosing those options are different for individuals with different personal contexts. The domestic worker who is a single mom may be quite limited in the options she feels are available to her if she experiences sexual violence at the hands of an employer. This is the reality that my mother-in-law faced as she worked on the factory assembly line.

Which brings us back to the issue of power. What lies at the root of sexual violence is not sex or the need for sexual gratification. What lies at the root of sexual violence is the desire and ability of someone to exercise power over someone more vulnerable and to use sexual behavior as the mechanism to do it.

It is easy to understand this in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace, a boss harassing an employee or a teacher pressuring a student for sex in exchange for a better grade. What is less clear is the effect of the broader social realities of power and inequality, power imbalances of gender, age, race, ability and class.

But it is precisely those cultural power imbalances that create the environment where sexual violence can flourish. So we must address those cultural power imbalances as well.

If you want an end to sexual violence, you must work for social justice for one is not possible without the other. The millennial comedians at my house in November understood that it is all connected because we are all connected.

I’ll leave the last word to Oprah: “And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women … . And some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.” Amen to that, Oprah!

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