Our Bodies, Our Blog

Real Tips About Sexual Assault Everyone Can Use

By Guest Contributor |
Take Back the Night rally in India

by Susan Sered

The new academic year has started, and once again students are attending seminars on staying safe on campus. These orientation workshops typically focus on tips for how young women can protect themselves — such as be aware and stay alert, don’t get drunk, and stick together in groups.

I’m sure all of this is good advice, but it misses what I have come to see as the crux of the matter: Teaching girls and women that they can avoid sexual assault if they just try hard enough places responsibility for rape on the shoulders of targets rather than on the shoulders of perpetrators and of political and cultural power-brokers.

As a parent and an educator, I feel obligated to tell my children and students the real truth: Rape is a weapon used to amass, exert and enforce power. It has nothing to do with the behavior or attitude or psychology or sociability or preparedness or intelligence or skirt length or alcohol use of particular girls and women.

Here are some examples of the truth about rape, along with related “tips” that students need to know.

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In 2012 there was (brief) international outrage over the brutal gang-rape of a student on a Delhi bus in 2012. This was far from an isolated incident. Women and girls in India are raped on buses, in schools, in bathrooms and at home. They are raped in the context of inter-religious, inter-ethnic and inter-caste violence. They are raped for being educated and they are raped for being uneducated.

According to a recent International Men and Gender Equality Survey, nearly 1 in 4 Indian men has committed sexual violence at some point in their lives. Rape in India must properly be seen in the context of femicide: The gender ratio in India is at its most unbalanced since 1947, with 1,000 boys for every 927 girls.

The “missing girls” are eliminated through selective abortion, infanticide, abandonment, preferential feeding of male children and adults, through torturing or killing young married women for their dowries.

Tip #1: Politely thank your university or community for rape crisis hotlines and for those shiny whistles they give out so that you can make a scary noise when you are assaulted. And then insist that they invest in educating and socializing men about women’s humanity and that they put significant resources into ending gender violence at its source.

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Hundreds of Yazidi women in Iraq have been abducted by ISIS and either sold or handed out to members of the extremist group in Syria. As CNN reports:

In the past few weeks, ISIS has “distributed” to its rank and file about 300 female members of the persecuted religious minority, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group aligned with the opposition in Syria.

The monitors explain that ISIS considers the girls and women “captives of the spoils of war with the infidels.”

Tip #2: If you ever hear anyone saying that a woman who was raped “asked for it,” ask them what the Yazidi women did to entice the ISIS terrorists.

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Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group active in Nigeria, has – for several years – been forcing Christian women to convert to Islam and taking them as wives. It has also carried out mass kidnappings and is still holding captive more than 200 girls soldiers abducted in April from a school in Chibok.

The group released a video in which the group’s apparent leader called the girls “slaves” and threatened to “sell them in the market” and “marry them out” rather than let them get educations.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, “Although about 50 [of the girls] escaped, not a single one of the remaining girls has been found, and despite international offers of help, the Nigerian government has been slow to act.”

Tip #3: Write for your campus newspaper, tweet, talk, yell, become an expert in social media: Help keep the violence committed against girls and women in the public eye.

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In an excellent online essay for NOW, Jenna Archer itemizes increases in incidents of gender-based violence in Central America in recent years.

“Rates of femicide (the targeted, systematic killing of women and girls), sexual violence, kidnapping, forced disappearance and unjustified detention are on the rise in the region,” she writes, “causing thousands of women to flee Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico due to their well-justified fear of being raped, murdered or tortured.”

Calling out the “pandemic of gender-based violence,” Archer notes:

Rates of gender-based violence in Honduras rose sharply after the 2009 coup d’état and during the subsequent regime of Porfirio Lobo. Between 2002 and 2010, the rate of femicide increased 257 percent and, today, the second most prevalent cause of death of women is gender-based violence. [...]

Girls may be kidnapped and forced into sex and drug trafficking. In some regions, it has gotten to the point that parents no longer allow girls to go to school because they fear for their safety.

Tip #4: Get together with friends and teachers to learn and talk about the “pandemic of gender-based violence.”

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Thousands of Central Americans travel through Mexico every year attempting to reach the United States. But because they make the trip illegally, they are vulnerable to kidnappings, extortion and robbery – with organized criminal groups such as Los Zetas often acting in cahoots with law enforcement authorities. Women face the additional reality of widespread sexual violence.

“The women passing through here know that they’re going to be raped,” the Rev. Prisciliano Pedraza, a priest and director of a shelter for migrants in the town of Altar, near the Arizona border, told Fox News Latino. “Migrants are a vulnerable group, and the most vulnerable among them are women.”

While there is no systematic tracking of rates of violence, Father Pedraza puts the figure at 90 percent of all female migrants.

Tip #5: Support candidates who support true immigration reform.

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Across the United States, an estimated 70 percent of incarcerated women have been victims of physical and sexual violence. With only a few exceptions, all of the Boston-area criminalized women with whom I work have suffered sexual abuse. About half of the women were sexually abused as children.

To escape, many of them ran away from home (and so were exposed to additional violence on the streets) and turned to drugs to “self-medicate.” As drug users they became vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of dealers, johns, prison guards and — as one woman puts it — “shady police who make you do things for them.”

And, even in this era of the Violence Against Women Act, the vast majority of rapists are not arrested. According to estimates only 5 percent of rapists are convicted and 3 percent spend any time in jail.

Tip #6: Don’t count on the police or the courts to save you from sexual assault.

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Susan Sered is a professor of sociology at Suffolk University in Boston and a senior researcher at Suffolk’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights. Her most recent book is “Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility” (University of California Press, 2014).