Silence is the enemy: addressing the causes.

Yesterday, in my first post about the Silence is the Enemy campaign, I wrote:

Addressing rape directly. From the point of view of ethics, you'd think this would be a very short discussion. It is wrong to commit sexual violence. It is wrong to act out your frustration or your sense of entitlement or your need to feel that there is something in your life that is within your control on the body of another human being. It is wrong to treat a woman or a child (or another man) as less than fully human.

Anyone who would argue otherwise could only be a moral monster. Or thoroughly steeped in a culture that regards women and children as less than fully human, and the desire, anger, and frustration of men as something that can be acted out on women and children.

The ethics of sexual violence seem pretty black and white. And yet sexual violence is a reality -- as a constant threat, if not as something that has been committed -- for more women than you can imagine.

As usual, Zuska say it better than anyone else:

I want to make the provocative suggestion that it is not helpful in some ways to label perpetrators of sexual assault - even those who rape very, very young girls - as "monsters". I say this as someone who was sexually assaulted at an extremely young age.

I was assaulted by someone I know. I would not call him a monster, though what he did is monstrous. Calling perpetrators of sexual assault monsters makes it seem like somehow we can cut them out of a crowd, easily identify them somehow, know them as in some way different from the more general group of average men. Yet this is not the case. The next time you are in a crowd, look around you. Can you tell who, in that crowd, are the men who have molested their daughters or sisters or cousins or nieces? Of course you can't. They look like every other man. They come from every walk of life, every social class, every type of occupation. ...

Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote, quoting Nicholas Kristof, "The war has shattered norms, training some men to think that 'when they want sex, they need simply to overpower a girl.' " Has it really shattered norms? Or just enshrined, entrenched, enhanced, and elevated a central norm of patriarchal manhood that women exist for men's pleasure, that a woman, any woman, even a three-year-old "woman" should be available at a man's whim to service his needs? Women's bodies are that upon which men enact their struggles to display their masculinity to each other. The rapes being carried out in Liberia and elsewhere are not being carried out by monsters; they are being perpetrated by men, average men, men who are in many cases known to their young victims. The rapes are acts done by men to assert their masculinity and a sense of control in a world in which very little is actually under their control.

How can the people (not monsters) who commit sexual violence commit such ethically monstrous acts? Finding the answer to this question and using this answer to change the conditions seems like a reasonable strategy for stopping sexual violence.

My hypothesis (though it's hardly a novel one) is that a crucial factor enabling sexual violence is the belief that women and children are "other", less important than men (at least, less important than men's desire or rage or need to demonstrate their power to control some part of their world), less than fully human. Other factors -- like war -- may contribute to sexual violence, but the othering of women and children seems essential for the response to war to take the form of rape.

Ratcheting down the othering just a little bit isn't enough. For a society to get close to equality between men and women is not enough if it comes down to potential rapists deciding, "My needs trump yours."

Only achieving the understanding that we are all members of the family of humanity -- and that, as such, we are subject to each other -- will solve the problem.

And this is why, even as we direct our voices and our donations to help address the crisis of mass rapes in Liberia, we must challenge the attitudes that let men become rapists everywhere -- in our schools, in our workplaces, in our military, in our families.

Mass rape is a big thing worth addressing.

Treating women and children as less than fully human is a big thing, too, worth addressing even in case where they aren't being left to hemorrhage to death but are simply being reminded to stay in their place.

Silence is the enemy. Our common humanity requires us to speak up.


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"My hypothesis is that a crucial factor enabling sexual violence is the belief that women and children are "other", less important than men"

I'd take it a step back: it's the belief that I - my wants, my needs - are more important than other people. That other people are simply irrelevant. Rape is just a manifestation of human evil (you can call it "psychopathy" if you must) as it applies to sex in particular - it's not a separate category. A rapist is no different from those guys in that movie "the smartest guys in the room" - it's just a particular expression of the same old thing.

I agree that we cannot address only mass rape since mass rape is rooted in attitudes which existed before those rapists found the opportunity to commit mass rapes. If we only address rape in other countries or committed by people very different from ourselves then it is easy to other those rapists rather than recognizing the common roots of sexual violence.

Besides othering rape and sex abuse victims, which can be done in part by declaring that certain groups are not harmed by sexual violence or deserve rape, a strategy I've seen actually feeds off old-fashioned prevention.

This is the decision to make potential victims fully and solely responsible for avoiding rape and therefore responsible for the behavior of rapists.

I was going to comment along the lines of Paul Murray- that although 'othering' of a group can definitely facilitate violence, it is not necessary to assume it is occurring here, given the alienation and broken psyches resulting from war zones (i.e. the risk of a total breakdown in empathy for anyone else/'psychopathy'). But part of the reason we even know about this problem is that it's not going away with the rest of the violence- and that may well speak to an underlying othering.