Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The questions matter, not just the answers.

Last week, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze started a firestorm with a skit meant to undermine the statistics used to justify tighter scrutiny of the way college campuses respond to sexual assault of students. Bloomberg Businessweek does a good job of putting the statistics into context in their article linked here. (The link also includes the video of the skit if you care to watch it.) I would argue that the bigger point, however, is not about parsing out the statistics. Rather, the questions that they asked are most informative.

Granted, the questions seem like researchers are taking a circuitous route to their final numbers, and that leads to the show's criticism. The studies asked about specific behavior or situations often without using the term "rape" or "sexual abuse." The host of the segment declares that if he were to study the percentage of women who were raped, he would ask them "Have you been raped?" The more direct the approach the better the answers, right? Apparently it does not occur to him that some women may choose not to identify themselves as rape victims to a man they do not know, especially one who asks in such blunt, careless language. Maybe he should be asking why researchers feel they have to explicitly state different sexual assault and sexual coercion situations to elicit responses rather than just asking the simple question. Therein lies the lesson.

Researchers have learned that victims of sexual violence do not always identify as "rape victims" or "sexual assault victims" even if their experience meets the legal definition. There are different explanations for this phenomenon. One of the most troubling ones that has surfaced in research is that some of these abusive behaviors are normalized by society in a way that victims no longer identify as victims of sexual violence. This is not a matter of "The president is saying the women were raped and these women are saying they weren’t" as The Blaze host opines. It is at least in part about what our culture tells even the youngest women about their body and how men will treat or mistreat them.

In a study published in Gender & Society, researchers found that child victims routinely trivialized, minimized, or justified sexual harassment and sexual abuse committed against them. Sexually aggressive boys who touched girls without their consent or used sexually explicit language to proposition the girls were understood as "boys being boys." Even adult men who pursued sexual contact with underage girls were sometime given this pass by the victims.

One 14 year old in the study relayed a story about a boy on her school bus who repeatedly touched her over her protests. He ultimately told her that he planned to come to her house and rape her since she was not acquiescing to his sexual overtures. This girl repeated dismissed the threats and aggression as the boy "feeling rejected" or "just joking." She did not identify as a victim of sexual abuse or sexually aggressive behavior.

Like the women in the studies that The Blaze skewers, the children in this study did not always report the abuse to authority figures because they didn't believe it was serious enough to warrant reporting.  These are young girls being forcibly touched against their will. Boys (and sometimes men) are touching their bodies without their consent and the girls don't consider it serious enough to report. They change their own behavior by trying to avoid the situation or the boy or by trying to divert his attention, but they do not identify the males' behavior as abusive. The girls' own behavior belies their discomfort with the situation, but they do not express that in terms of sexual abuse.

It's not just the boys who normalize this behavior. Mothers tell their daughters to expect sexual aggression and to protect themselves. After being forced to perform oral sex on a 17 year old boy, Terri (age 11) took the blame on herself saying, "I shouldn't have been there, my mom said I should've been home anyway, but I didn't want to get raped so I had to." This girl was forced, under threat of forced vaginal intercourse, to perform oral sex against her will. Still, she does not identify as a rape or sexual assault victim.

Another 14 year old girl reported that a 30-something year old man touched her leg, thigh, breasts, and vagina. When asked to reflect on the encounter later, she said, "He does it to everyone, you know, it's just happens sometimes." Other girls reported being given alcohol to facilitate sexual abuse, repeatedly being propositioned by adults who had already sexually abused their peers, and being shamed or threatened with shaming for their sexual behavior. Still, some of the girls criticized themselves and their peers for not successfully avoiding the abuse and normalized the males' behavior as just part of the way things are.

Get that? Women and girls can be subjected to aggressive sexual behavior, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and rape without necessarily identifying themselves as rape victims. It's not always the case, but it does happen. It does not mean that they are not victims, it just means that we have to be smarter and more delicate in the way we ask the questions. It is the nuanced questions, like in the studies lambasted by The Blaze that elicit descriptions of those victimizations. Until we can change our culture which tells women to expect, normalize, and take responsibility for the violence committed against them by males, the least we can do is ask the right questions to let them tell their stories.

Comments by: Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services