US culture plays role in sexual assaultBy Ruth Bishop | 09/14/2015 7:34am
Sexual assaults are clearly a huge issue on college campuses, including our own. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men reported being victims of rape, beating or other forms of sexual assault. And perhaps equally frightening is that 80 percent of sexual assaults occurred before age 25.
Comprehensive sex education is often promoted as a possible solution for reducing the alarming rate of sexual assault, and for good reason. Comprehensive sexual education focuses not only on STI transmission or contraception/abstinence but on sexual decision-making, safety, respect and the formation of healthy relationships. Evaluations of comprehensive sexual education have also consistently shown that it does not lead to earlier or more frequent sex, and is actually more effective than abstinence-only education in reducing unwanted pregnancy and rates of HIV/STI infection.
Nationally-mandated comprehensive sexual education would be a step in the right direction, but its results on decreasing the number of sexual assaults are not clear since there has been little research done on this topic. I think that in addition to these measures, we, as students and as a society, must engage our culture and question its messages in order to eliminate sexual assault.
Power dynamics and stereotypical gender norms can negatively impact sexuality in that they are often restrictive, unhealthy and unrealistic. In U.S. culture, men are represented as aggressive and dominating sexual pursuers whereas women are seen as passive recipients with the sole responsibility of resisting sexual advances. These norms perpetuate sexual violence in that they promote female submission and male dominance and fail to recognize the range of healthy ways humans can sexually interact.
We live in an oversexualized culture where sex is an expectation after X dates or Y beers, yet we are afraid of openly discussing our sexuality–in fact I would go so far as to say it is socially unacceptable to do so. Growing up, I remember being taught in school that sex was something dirty and wrong–only with a ring around my finger could I positively view sex. The U.S.’ cultural view of sex is paradoxical in that it is both casual and something to be ashamed of.
It is interesting that our very language provides proof of this contradiction: people “lose” their virginity and those who have sex outside of marriage are “whores” or “sluts” yet at the same time, those who have not yet had sex are “prudes.” How our language and culture instructs us to interact sexually is very much a part of the sexual assault issue in that we view sex as something to take rather than a gift to give someone else.
In every aspect of our media we see sex as a way to use another person to satisfy our own sexual needs. Sex is just another way to entertain ourselves and instantly gratify our desire for sexual pleasure. Our culture’s separation of sex from meaningful, loving relationships is dangerous as it leads to the notion that “I can just use and throw away this person’s body” without recognition of the emotional and psychological effects sex has on a person. As humans we cannot simply separate our instinctual sexual drives from ourselves. Viewing sex in a vacuum as a purely physical act is, in a way, denying what makes us human–we are not animals, but complex beings with emotions and thoughts. and we must take these into account in our cultural view of sex.
Perpetrators of sexual assault see sex as only physical and short-sighted–they fail to take into account the psychological and emotional complexities surrounding sex and thus fail to see the long-lasting negative effects of their actions on their victims. Perhaps if we can emphasize a more positive, realistic view of sex among young people, potential assailants will think twice about sexually-assaulting their prospective victims.
To eliminate sexual assault, we cannot just promote comprehensive sex education. We must challenge the aspects of our culture that condone misogyny, restricted gender roles and sexual bullying. And most importantly, we must act counter-culturally to change the very meaning of sex in our society.
Ruth Bishop is a senior majoring in Spanish and biology. Her column runs biweekly on Mondays.