One of the significant barriers we face in preventing sexual violence is an implicit bias people feel when considering their role in this subject.
If directly asked, I know that most would say sexual violence is wrong. Further, most would respond that they would act to stop violence if given a chance. Research supports this. People tend to know what violence looks like, understand the importance of seeking consent, and understand ways to intervene to prevent harm.
Why, then, does violence continue?
One reason is that people tend to undervalue how much of a role they can play in prevention.
When people consider harmful behaviors that contribute to or perpetuate violence, the majority experience internal thoughts like: “But I would never do that. I’m a good person. My friends are good people, so they would never do that. Violence happens, but not in my community/organization/campus/etc.”
While everyone can agree violence is harmful and should be stopped, it is rarer and more challenging to address the reality that all of us can play a more direct and hands-on role in preventing violence.
We can all be more involved in stopping these behaviors because, even where inadvertent, we all belong to systems, cultures, or groups that normalize violence.
Reading that sentence is likely uncomfortable. Writing it certainly was.
It is a truth we must embrace if we are to move forward.
Sexual violence is more than one terrible person doing an isolated, terrible thing. Sexual violence occurs in a variety of ways, both large and small.; it happens in physical assaults; it is normalized in the jokes we tell or the media we consume; it emerges in how we talk with friends about their partners; it is the gendered language we use; it is the types of abuse we dismiss as “impossible” against specific populations; it is the predatory behaviors that our cultures reward in media or public narratives; it is attacking reproductive rights; it is limiting educational resources to particular communities; it is misgendering someone; sexual violence is all of these and so many more. The list of what violence does and can look like is overwhelming and exhausting.
Not every form of it involves bodily harm. Some behaviors of violence are insidious or even accepted by certain groups. Beliefs normalizing sexual violence manifest in our personal conversations with loved ones and grow in our public discourse on the issue. It is how we spend our time and money. It is influenced by the organizations we support. And sexual violence is so pervasive because it builds in our beliefs, appears in group habits, and becomes normalized behaviors.
But when we accept that violence occurs outside of limited toxic moments of individual behavior, we can address the more significant reality:
If the causes of violence are more complex, systematic, and personally nuanced than we realize, then our capabilities to prevent it are more complex, systematic, and personally nuanced than we realize.
Stopping violence is not a matter of being a good person. It is not having good friends. It is undoubtedly more than a one-time dramatic act. It is a lot of variable actions that, yes, can depend on our circumstances but take and build over time.
Even as a survivor of sexual violence and an educator, I can do better.
I constantly must think about what stories I am telling and how these are inclusive of the behaviors others face. How do I ensure I am not taking up space? How am I educating myself constantly as people and society adapt?
And as a person, this is even more true. How am I showing up in public spaces? How am I talking with my relatives about this, especially those difficult conversations with those who hold vastly different perceptions? Where are my gaps due to my personal identities?
And I’ve made mistakes. When I’ve missed the mark or failed to account for how my systems guided my actions, I must work to correct it.
Everyone can play a role in preventing sexual violence and stopping harmful behaviors. Even if we think that we are not actively engaging in violence, there are systems where we belong that are. Even if we endeavor to always seek consent, we have friends or loved ones who are not practicing these values. Even if we educate ourselves, there are still ways to learn more.
To be 100% clear, I want to acknowledge that the amount of work that everyone can do is exceptionally variable. Some groups are immensely harmed by violence on a personal and societal level. Sexual violence impacts many populations disproportionately. It is never my place to tell many what to do or how to assess their perceptions.
This call to action is also not to shame you. It is an invitation to challenge our gaps stemming from personal bias. If every one of us thinks we are good and our communities are good, we will continue to miss out. We will miss opportunities to speak up, call out, learn, engage, and prevent.
Realizing that we are not infallible, owning that our peers and we have work to do, does not make us bad. It means we have room to improve. And society does indeed have so much room to improve. Unless we commit to personal improvement, even if it is as small as not using a particular term or having a challenging chat with a friend about their dating habits, I fear grander prevention will not occur. How can we change the severe and sweeping if we never focus on the small and personal?
In preventing sexual violence, yes, we absolutely must prevent predatory and violent behavior. We also must address the multitude of beliefs and habits that normalize violence. We must acknowledge that outside of stopping that one act of violence or harm, a series of beliefs, values, and norms built towards that moment.
All of us can play a role in preventing sexual violence. Sometimes the first step is having that honest conversation with ourselves to remove the bias of how we perceive ourselves and acknowledge the truth that, where we don’t ever want to be a part of the problem, there are so many ways we can more intimately be part of the solution.