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mental healthMay is Sexual Assault Prevention Month but do we need to talk about sexual violence during these hard times of uncertainty, fear, isolation and personal stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The answer is ‘Yes’. Sexual violence - just like all forms of violence against women and children - is most often perpetrated in isolation and under a cloak of secrecy. This lock down puts women and children at even greater risk particularly when there is already a collective discomfort in addressing sexual violence. The current conditions of isolation, marginalization and fewer social supports directly impact sexual violence. This is where the pandemics of COVID19 and sexual violence intersect.

Stories of sexual violence are in the news almost daily. We hear about cases of rape, sexual exploitation, and sexual abuse by politicians, celebrities, people in the army, the police, the clergy, the schools, our communities, our friends and families. The headlines address these events in isolation but here lies a big problem. Discussing sexual violence only as individual events fails to connect the dots which would show us that sexual violence is part of a larger pattern. Although official statistics state that one in three women and one in five men have been sexually abused, the real numbers are much higher. Almost every woman has experienced some form of sexual abuse or unwanted sexual activity and most men have experienced sexual violation or faced the threat of being abused. This is a long-standing pandemic of sexual violence and we all need to play a role in ending it.

Sexual violence and intergenerational trauma affect individual lives, relationships, the way we raise our children, mental health, the very fabric of our society and often have deadly results. A few days ago, I talked with a friend of mine who was sexually abused when he was a boy and who has dedicated his life to working with sexual abuse survivors. He posed two questions: “How did we get here?” And more important: “Why do we stay here?”

We got here through thousands of years of a culture that gave men absolute power over women and children. For centuries, men owned women and children, their bodies and minds. Sex and gender roles were defined by men. Women were obliged to provide sex to men however men wished and desired. Literature, art and period movies provide us with windows into how men’s ownership of women played out over the last centuries and continue to today.

In these social constructs, women’s needs and desires did not matter although some women’s individual attempts to break these molds provided some curious views into their struggles for autonomy. We may be momentarily appalled by these customs of unchallenged injustices and tell ourselves that things are better now. Although gender equality and children’s welfare are recognized in modern constitution and laws have changed to support safety, the reality of sexual violence and exploitation continues. Men continue to expect women to be submissive. These expectations can be observed even when women have social status, education and income. At the end of the day women are still often expected to comply with men’s rules as defined by ideas of a‘cultural’, ‘religious’, or ‘biological’ norm. Today’s treatment of women and children, pornography, many computer games and popular culture will provide the future “period stories” of our misogynist attitudes and sexual violence.

If these are the factors that brought us to this point, then “why do we stay here”? The basic answer is that we are afraid of disrupting the deeply entrenched male-dominated order. The hierarchy itself tells us in many ways to shut up and stay quiet. Confronted with experiences and stories of sexual violence we may briefly respond with some internal protest or disbelief, but we have been taught to move on and try to forget.

If we want to end sexual violence, we need to first acknowledge its pervasiveness, speak up about it, and work towards change. Attempting to prevent sexual violence by focusing on victims and survivors, while simply punishing individual perpetrators has not changed and will not change the cultural conditions that create and sustain this pandemic. Sexual violence is made possible by the overarching system of male domination. That said, together we have the power to change the system.

Here are ways we can play our parts in supporting change:
· Provide children with care and nurture healthy, trusting attachment relationships
· Learn about and be open to letting go of toxic masculinity, and embrace healthy masculinities based on equality, respect and consent
· Encourage boys and men to show vulnerabilities
· Help men understand the connection between their personal (sexual) trauma and need for rigid gender roles and control of women
· Strive to raise children in ways that are gender neutral (this does not mean that the children are gender neutral, it means that we treat all children equally)
· Raise children in violence free homes
· Support boys in engaging in compassionate and caring relationships with boys and girls
· Support and encourage boys and men to speak out and possibly intervene when they witness any forms of sexual violence

With all the historic baggage we are carrying, these changes are not easy and there are many obstacles but ending sexual violence and oppression are crucial for the sake of women, children, and all of humanity. Maybe the COVID19 pandemic is showing us, that for our survival we can and need to work together. Over the last months we collectively started to radically alter our interactions, we stepped back and slowed down to “flatten the curve” and to minimize risk. Wouldn’t it be great if we applied this collective desire for survival to ending sexual violence? Let’s work on it!

Joachim Ostertag
Owen Sound

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