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The F* Word

The F* Word: A feminist analysis of why sexual violence happens and how we have the power to change it

By Maggie Forsythe, Campus Sexual Assault Support Advocate

When Power and Privilege still aren’t enough

There is no denying that sexual violence is a significant issue that post-secondary institutions must address.  As we begin a new chapter of our academic lives with this new semester, it is time to start thinking about why sexual violence happens and what we can do to change the culture that facilitates it.

If we are going to make progress in responding to and decreasing sexual violence, we must first acknowledge that sexual violence is a gendered crime. Individuals who identify (or who are identified) as women are the primary targets for sexual crimes. The vast majority (94 per cent according to Statistics Canada data from 2014) of sexual violence against all genders is perpetrated by men. Indigenous women, women with disabilities and members of the LGBT2Q+ community are at increased risk of being targeted. However, in order to understand the gendered nature of sexual violence, we also need to discuss power. Even when men are the targets of sexual violence, it is an expression of domination and control. Sexual assault is not a product of unfulfilled desire, being blinded by beauty or missteps taken in a drunken haze; instead, all forms of sexual violence are rooted in a person’s desire to feel a sense of dominance over someone else.

From sexual harassment to rape, all types of sexual violence have two things in common: a desire to overpower another person’s will, and a lack of regard for the other person’s feelings—but why? How do we get to a place where certain people feel entitled to act on these desires? This brings us to our word of the month: privilege.

Privilege is a way of talking about the advantages (power) we may or may not hold depending on factors such as race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, social class and/or ability. If your identity aligns with factors that carry the most privilege in society (e.g. whiteness, maleness, able-bodied, heterosexual) you may not question—or be aware of—the potential benefits. In contrast, if your identity does not align with those privilege-carrying factors, you may not experience the safety or ease-of-opportunity that others do.

We often think of celebrities as people who have a lot of privilege. Taylor Swift, for example, is successful and talented, respected, admired and will never have to worry about money; because of these privileges, you would think that she would have to worry for nothing. However, as a woman, Taylor Swift is still at a greater risk of sexual violence despite her privilege—a reality that was made evident in her recent, widely-publicized sexual assault case. During a meet and greet, disc jockey David Mueller put his hand up her dress and held onto her butt during a photoshoot. Though grabbing someone without consent may not seem like sexual violence or be alarming to some, it is incidents like this that foster a culture minimizing and permitting more violent crimes.

Even women like Taylor Swift live in a world where their privilege will never measure up to that of the men in their lives. As they walk to their cars at night or wait for a blind date, they will wonder if they will be targeted and hurt. In schools, they are told that the sight of their bra straps will give boys (and men) the “wrong idea” Everywhere, they are faced with messages that they should be smaller than they appear, quieter than they are and smile more than they do.

In discussions about gender privilege, individuals who identify as men may feel resistance and proclaim that they experience the same restrictions and unattainable expectations that women describe: Men are asked to be stronger than they are, more successful than they will be and more dominant than they may feel; these expectations demand that they take up more space—not less. Women are interrupted more often than men and their ideas are more often co-opted into someone else’s ownership. These types of traditional gender stereotypes continue to foster rape-supportive attitudes and beliefs.

In my work as the campus sexual assault support advocate, I see this most often in the lack of accountability students take when their actions have harmed someone else. Deflection of responsibility, as in victim-blaming, throws shade over the survivor, but also deteriorates a communal sense of unity. In order for us to make headway with regard to on-campus sexual violence, we need to see privileged individuals take a stand, acknowledge the ways in which others experience fear and work to create positive spaces for those in need. We need people to stand up and take responsibility when their actions have harmed others, and to promote a campus culture that strives for equality.

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