The first thing that comes to mind when many Americans think of sexual offenders is the stereotypical man who jumps out from behind bushes to sexually assault strangers. However, for the majority of sexual assault survivors, this stereotype does not describe their experience. Most women who are sexually assaulted suffer at the hands of someone they know. After learning this fact, people are quick to assume that “something must have been wrong with them [the assailant]” and imagine the perpetrator to suffer from some sort of psychosis, which limits their inhibitions. Again, wrong. Men with a mental illness perpetrate a mere 10% of male-to-female sexual violence. How can we possibly explain away the other 90%? The frightening reality is that men who sexually assault women are all too normal.
“Most men who assault women are not so much disturbed as they are disturbingly normal. Like all of us, they are products of familial and social systems. They are our sons, brothers, friends, and coworkers. As such, they are influenced not only by individual factors, but also by broader cultural attitudes and beliefs about manhood that shape their psyches and identities. And ours.” (qtd. in Renzetti 10).
While it may help us sleep at night to imagine that women can protect themselves by taking a self-defense class and walking in pairs at night, this simply does not match the reality of the issue. Cultures across the globe are raising boys to be violent and are undervaluing femininity. This cannot simply be changed by rewriting a few laws or by teaching women how to protect themselves.
Where does this leave us? Sexual violence is a much broader, more culturally coded issue than many are comfortable believing, so how do we begin to create a culture that does not tolerate violence against women and raises males to be as empathetic and nurturing as they are strong and confident? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Complex, deep-rooted problems call for complex, deep-rooted solutions. Change needs to happen on all levels – international organizations, national governments, local governments, families, and individuals. With this idyllic vision of cooperation, norms of violence will gradually shift towards norms of respect towards and empowerment of women.
Renzetti, Claire et al. Sourcebook on Violence Against Women. 2nd edition. Sage Publications, 2010. Print.