A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to a talk given by Keith Edwards, who is a “speaker and educator on sexual violence prevention, men’s identity, social justice education, and curricular approaches.” I am so glad I skipped the last half of my math lecture to attend this talk. He has been giving speeches on prevention for the past 15 years at over 150 colleges and universities which means he was a magnificent speaker.
With everyone coming out with their Me Too stories, hashtags, posts, and watching celebrities and politicians fall one by one I felt this would be a perfect opportunity to open up a discussion about what we can each do to end sexual violence.
He started the talk by saying we all need to feel safe to thrive and grow. We need to create a community where growth, learning, safety, etc. is possible. Which spoke volumes to me. When I truly thrive is when I feel confident in my marriage, friendships, and my ability as a mother. The more confident I feel the more I grow as a person. However, on the flip side when my security or safety have ever felt threatened I completely shut down and crumble.
He continued on by explaining that sexual violence is a broad umbrella term and wanted to make sure we understood the difference between rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. We all say we know it but I wanted to write it down for you just in case:
Words or gestures – sexual harassment
Touching – sexual assault
Penetration – rape
He made a very valid point that we’ve really only talked about sexual violence for the past 40 years. It was happening before that but we weren’t talking about it. Generally, we’ve thought of sexual violence as a woman’s issue, which is both good and bad. Women have been doing the majority of the work to get laws past, speak out about the issue, etc. which causes it to be a ‘woman’s issue.’ We know it happens to women so we think it’s a woman’s job to fix it, which is a terrible way to think. It also happens to men, trans, and gender non-conforming people and we need to start acknowledging that.
We need to start acknowledging all victims and all perpetrators.
For the past 40 years, we have been telling women how to respond to situations where they are being violated or could potentially be violated. We have reinforced victim blaming in our culture. With messages like don’t walk alone, don’t walk home at night, hold your keys like this, don’t drink too much, don’t wear this, etc. We are basically saying, “We know rape happens and here’s how you women should deal with it.”
Which is complete BULL SHIT! As a woman who’s been told these things or asked things like “Well, what were you wearing?” I can say it does not help anyone.
He asked the room of around 200 people to raise their hand if they knew someone who’s experienced sexual violence; 90% of the room raised their hands. He didn’t ask us but let us know that if he had asked about 25% of us would say we’ve experienced sexual violence personally. If that’s not eye-opening I’m not sure what is. Keith Edwards told us 1 in 4 college women report being a survivor of sexual assault. People who don’t believe this number tend to explain it away. They say things like those numbers are from an old study, they lied, the study was done by a left wing nut, or it was done by a radical feminist, etc. However, it’s not an ancient number and it wasn’t done by a left wing nut or radical feminist. It was done by the US Center for Disease Control in 2011 and the number stays the same across the country in big universities, community colleges, cities, rural areas, etc.
So if all of these people are being sexually assaulted what do you do when someone opens up and tells you? Well, he had some absolutely amazing tips for that. When someone comes to you and tells you they are a victim or feel like something ‘weird’ happened there are 4 tips to help you navigate that very sensitive subject:
- Make sure they are SAFE
- Are they injured?
- Do they need a place to stay?
- Do they need medical attention?
- Believe them
- Just believe them. Don’t try and figure out who is it, if they’re telling the truth, etc. JUST BELIEVE THEM!!!
- Say “It’s not your fault.”
- Do not blame the survivor.
- They have probably already blamed themselves and heard comments about it being their fault.
- They can not hear “it’s not your fault” enough.
- Empower them.
- Let them make decisions.
- Their ability to make that decision was taken away when they were assaulted.
- You can make suggestions and choices but let them make the decisions.
We learned, or in some cases acknowledged, sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. Sexual violence is mostly perpetrated by men whether the victim is a woman, a man, a trans person, or gender non-conforming person. Which means it’s a men’s issue. I found myself nodding my head in agreement when he stated, “let’s focus on who’s doing it and not who it’s happening to. We have to shift from being reactive to proactive.”
How do you be proactive as a man you may be asking. Well, men can make sure they aren’t committing sexual violence. They can talk to other men they know about what they do and say. They can talk to people in their community to help prevent it.
On top of the majority of the perpetrators being men, 84% of women who admitted to being a victim of sexual violence knew their attacker. Which shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. Especially after all of these stories that have been coming out in the past few weeks.
84% of men who admitted they committed sexual violence did not believe their actions to be illegal. He’s wanting to hook up and have sex the way he’s been taught his whole life, how is that wrong? And Keith acknowledged this very sad fact. He told us, the task is not educating you what sexual violence is, it’s unlearning what you’ve been taught your entire life. Which makes perfect sense. In all the movies and TV you’re told getting a girl drunk will get her to have sex with you, if you set the mood right, if you have strong feelings for each other, and the list goes on and on.
Which is where informed consent becomes a part of the conversation. Informed consent is the difference between hooking up, making out, etc. and sexual violence. you can not give informed consent if you are intoxicated. Informed consent is when you are an adult who is awake, not drugged, not intoxicated, or mentally handicapped. If you are intoxicated you CAN NOT make an informed decision!
At every step of the way, affirmative consent needs to be given. You need consent to hold hands, kiss, touch, take clothes off, have sex, and so on. He explained it as affirmative consent is a stop light. At a “green light.” At a “yellow light” you need to communicate, slow down and proceed with caution. At a “red light,” you stop and do not keep going, no matter what. On top of affirmative and informed consent, it needs to be given freely. Which means you should not be nagged, badgered, or coerced to do anything you do not want to do.
So how do we change this? Keith Edwards said we need to change the way we think and talk about sexual violence. We need to transform rape culture.
Rape culture. Is that really a thing you may be asking. What is it really? I’ve heard about it but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Thankfully he broke it down into 4 main topics with very clear examples.
- Objectification of women
- This is women being depicted as sexual objects in the media.
- Women being half naked, men watching women in sexual situations from behind the curtain, men being dominating towards women in the media, etc.
- Subordinating women’s intelligence, capability, and humanity.
- Degrading comments that sexualize women.
- Things like “I’ll stuff your beaver” written on a taxidermy company’s t-shirt.
- Defining masculinity as the sexual conquest of women.
- This goes hand in hand with unlearning what we’ve always been taught.
- We know what the ‘rules’ are and what it means to be a man, but are the men that follow these rules really men?
- Men can never truly live up to society’s expectations of what it means to be a man.
- We’ve been taught misogyny and homophobia are the best ways to “get your manhood back.”
- Intersecting forms of oppression.
- This means if you’re committed to ending sexual assault you need to speak out about racism, genderism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, etc.
- You can’t care about racism and not homophobia because they all intersect and support (really drag each other down) each other.
He ended the talk with two very important messages. First, to the men in the room, he asked them to “live your life in your full authenticity.” What he meant by that was to be you! Don’t be scared of what others think. Be you, be proud, stop trying to live up to these insane expectations and you will be a much happier person. Second, he said he was “not optimistic about changing the number of sexually violent acts, but hopefully, it will change.” We can join together and create a different future.
This talk really touched me and I had to go up and thank him for speaking out and making it a priority in his life and in the lives of those around him.
I tried to take notes the entire time and get everything he was talking about but I highly suggest you researching him and watching his Ted Talk for yourself.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. –Lila Watson Aboriginal Activists