This month is sexual assault awareness month. Whatever your gender, don't turn away from this blog. Victims, Perpetrators, and Bystanders can be of any gender and are all affected by violence directly and indirectly. [Note: If you need or want support or to learn more about how to be a bystander at work, home or in your community, a list of resources is available at the end of this blog.]
We live in a culture and society where violence is pervasive. This month we felt it was important to write about sexual and domestic violence and trauma. While all of us are affected by violence, the vast majority of victims of violence are still women. 1 in 3 women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime. This could be you, your daughter, sister, mother, coworker, neighbor or your spouse.
Here are a few insights that we want to offer as we strive for a world where persons of all genders can live free from violence and in choice:
Why does she stay?
What was she wearing?
Why was she out so late?
Why are they so weak?
Why can’t they just leave?
These are the most common questions we hear about women as victims of sexual and domestic violence. These questions are not empowering. But why?
These questions infer that the woman is doing something wrong at the time of the attack. They put the blame and pressure on the woman to behave in a particular way. We all make choices every day. Some of us have to work late at night. Others want to go out to a party. And still others want to date. All of these things seem harmless as I talk about them. If I told you a girl went to a party with her boyfriend and her friends. You wouldn’t think twice about this story. But if I told you her boyfriend coerced her into having sex at that party and then told his friends about it. Your mind would shift to something she did wrong. If your mind shifted to her I would urge you to pause and ask yourself what about this story changed? Why didn’t your mind shift to him? And if it did, what was the nature of your shift?
Our society's systems and structures have largely been constructed and are reinforced by men. As a result, it is easier to culturally blame and shame victims of violence. This need to blame and shame is largely driven by a need to define people into neat boxes and then make a judgment of the value of that definition. We use all sorts of definitions to make judgments - skin color, weight, how someone dresses, where they live, what religion they practice, etc. When we label or try and define and shame others we should ask ourselves, “what’s important about blaming that person?” Are we seeking to distinguish or “exceptionalize” the situation? Does doing so create a “safety boundary” to separate us from them?
What if we shifted our thinking and asked: Why does he or they abuse? What made the choice of violence more attractive? What’s important about having power and control over another human being?
You could run through a list of reasons but the final answer is quite simple… it is a choice.
Sexual assault, harassment and other forms of sexual and domestic violence are about making a choice to exert power and control over another human being. Who has the power? How can I take it from them? This affects how we think about what love should look like. Is love about control or power? No. Yet there are all sorts of signals in our society’s culture about normalizing the exertion of power and control in every day life. Here are some examples in the Latino community:
- Greeting with a hug and a kiss. Not all Latin American cultures greet each other with a hug and a kiss, including people outside and inside the family. Some Latino cultures and families believe a handshake is more appropriate, even between family members of the opposite sex, especially between men and women who are not partners. Consider how often you touch others. Sometimes we exert our own culture on other people without knowing what that person needs to feel confident and safe. If you prefer less touching, consider communicating that to others so they know you are not comfortable with hugging or kissing. Sharing what you need from relationships is key to stepping into your own power.
- Silence in the Latino culture. In my childhood, I was told “children are to be seen and not heard.” Children are often discouraged from seeking help by being told that the family will be torn apart or that they will lose a parent if the police get involved. Women are taught to be virginal in all aspects of life and see sex as a mystery to be revealed on your wedding day. Many men are over-sexualized from a young age, seeing sex and sexual prowess as a right of passage to prove their manhood. Later, they may feel forced to engage in hyper-sexualization of women for fear they will lose status with other men if they call out someone else’s bad behavior. These are all forms of silence placed upon us to keep a false concept of masculinity, preventing men from exhibiting all their emotions and allowing others to behave poorly by keeping the status quo in place. We all have a choice to keep or let go of certain culture norms or behaviors in our community. Breaking the silence around these norms can provide personal freedom and respect for ourselves and for each other across genders, families, and communities.
- Your behavior at work. Many of my female clients and friends have expressed the need to behave like "Alpha Males" to make it in their industry. Instead of bringing your natural given talents to work, we replicate bad behavior to demonstrate our own prowess and ability to control others. Unfortunately, when men and women mimic this hyper masculine approach, they suppress other forms of essential leadership in the workplace. This usually costs companies, time, money and valuable leadership skills. This element is further contrasted with a great desire by “Alpha Females” to marry a man who is macho, strong, warrior, leader and will protect them because this behavior is valued in society. Instead of leading based on someone else’s behavior, establish your own values and lead from that place. The most successful authentic leaders do not seek to harm others. Instead they use their values as a compass to achieve what they want and bring people along in the process.
We all have a role to play. So how can we shift?:
- Letting go of shame and guilt. Shame and guilt are the mental killers for victims and survivors of violence. As a coach and a survivor of sexual assault, I have seen the shame that victims carry around about the perpetrator’s bad behavior. That shame shows up in all kinds of ways – depression, anxiety, modeling male behavior in the workplace and even depressed sexuality. If you are victim, the perpetrator’s behavior is not your fault. Consider putting down the perpetrator’s bad behavior and picking up your own healing. You are resilient and beautiful and this moment in time does not have to define the rest of your life. You can change direction. Consider seeking counseling, coaching or some form of therapy to help you begin to shift and feel more freedom in your life.
- Peer to Peer Education: Be a Good Bystander. Step into your power with your peers. Bystanders are everyone who is neither a victim nor a perpetrator. You have great power to shift the culture. Hold others accountable before physical violence begins. Violent behavior begins with bullying and rolls downhill into a number of other behaviors before it ends with rape. While a bully may not turn into a rapist, the road to violence is learned and reinforced by peers. Early intervention can help prevent deeper forms of violence over time. When your friends are making sexually explicit jokes that demean others, tell them to stop and that you don’t think it’s funny. We can each contribute to shifting the violent behavior into something new and positive. More and more men are standing up and living outside these traditional gender roles and communicating where they stand on these values. Thank you #HeforShe!
- Supporting Survivors in Choice. Most of us want to rush to the aide of someone else and pull them out of a bad situation. We want to save the people we love from pain. We often rely on telling victims to get out of there immediately. More power and control over the victim is usually not the answer and may further endanger that person. Allowing a victim in emotional or physical crisis to tell you what they need is key. Make that shift in thinking and become an ally by asking how you can support them. Then be patient. A victim will tell you what they need, when they need it and how they want to be supported. You can become a true lifeline to an otherwise isolating moment for someone trying to escape violence.
Violence comes in all shapes and sizes. While this month is about physical contact most people experience some sort of emotional, economic, religious, cultural or social violence in their lifetime. We can shift our society together. And remember, Love is respect.
- If you have been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
- To learn more about what healthy relationships look like, check out Love Is Respect
- www.loveisrespect.org or call 1-866-331-9474
- To attend a training or have a trainer come to your place of work contact the National Latin@ Network (NLN) at http://nationallatinonetwork.org or the Anti-Violence Project at: http://www.avp.org/
- To learn why Violence Against Women is a Man's issue, check out Jackson Katz's TedX talk: http://bit.ly/1jf9C8s