Sexual violence is gendered because gender is one of the main risk factors for experiencing this widespread human rights violation. Other risk factors are sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, class, being a sex worker, having a history of sexual abuse, having a mental illness or physical disability, being incarcerated or institutionalisedInstitutionalised persons are living in, or supervised by, specialised institutions, like mental health or rehabilitation clinics, youth services or welfare programmes.close, and substance abuse. Recognition of the way these many factors often intersect is key to understanding, preventing and adequately responding to this painful and prevalent form of gender-based violence, that is firmly rooted in and sustained by exclusionary, discriminatory and patriarchal social norms and institutions.
First, numbers and definitions. Globally, almost 1 in 3 women and girls above age 15 have experienced some form of sexual violence. Statistics on sexual abuse experiences by boys and men vary, from 1 in 2 to 1 in 6. That means they were coerced or violently forced into a sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act, were trafficked against their will, or received unwanted sexual comments, advances or other acts against their sexuality. More concretely, sexual violence includes rape and attempted rape, harassment, forced marriage or cohabitation, forced abortion and denial of the right to contraception, forced prostitution and female genital cutting. The vast majority of perpetrators are men. Sexual violence has no age limit, with as many as 150 million girls under 18 being subjected to it each year, usually by someone in their family circle. Of all US adult women, 1 in 10 has been raped by an intimate partner.
Research from the US also shows that sexual violence is disproportionally affecting members from the LGBTQIA+Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Trans (T), Queer (Q), Intersex (I), Asexual (A), + denotes an umbrella term used by 'marginalized sexual and gender diverse people whose gender, gender expression, or sexual identity do not conform to cis-gender or hetero-dominant gender identity'. This acronym is intersectional by virtue of its nature as well as non-exhaustive and inclusive (as denoted by the +). Over the years, the + has been understood as encompassing Questioning (Q), Two-spirit (TS), or Pansexual (P). In other words, this term represents fluid (non-conforming) notions of gender identity and sexual orientation supposedly transgressing the binary constructs of our society (male v. female and heterosexual v. homosexual).close community: 46% of bisexual women have been raped compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians. 40% of gay men and 47% of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21% of straight men. 47% of transgender people in the US are sexually assaulted at some point in their life.
Sexual violence is a crime rarely committed out of ‘passion’ or lust. Rather, it should be seen as an extreme expression of the need to dominate or exert power over another person. Data shows that more assertive women face more sexual harassment than less assertive women, especially in workplaces dominated by men. This highlights that the problem is not perpetrators lacking self-control, but perpetrators wanting to exert control over other – already marginalised – individuals. Sexual violence, then, is enabled by social, cultural and religious norms that normalise domination over women (especially young women), LGBTQIA+ people, people with a low income and persons who are otherwise more at risk of oppression, exclusion or discrimination. Due to its far-reaching psychological and physical impacts, sexual violence is a very effective way to keep these people down.
Sexual violence may result in mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and low self-esteem. The big social stigma around sexual violence contributes to the psychological difficulties of processing unwanted sexual experiences. Next to that, sexual violence increases the risk of infection with sexually transmittable diseases, including HIV/Aids. Other possible physical consequences are unwanted pregnancy and gynaecological problems like vaginal bleeding or urinary tract infection. Survivors at times also face restrictions in developing their sexuality and sex life after experiencing sexual violence.
What can we do to prevent and properly respond to sexual violence? On the prevention side, it is important to call out harassing behaviour and hold (potential) perpetrators accountable when you see them make unwanted moves. A simple “Hey, that person is not waiting for your attention, let’s go” can be enough to keep someone from crossing the line. Second, we must put an end to the many degrading comments, beliefs and behaviours that enable sexual violence. In a culture where women are considered inferior, transgender people are ridiculed, sexual violence is used as a means to ’emasculate’ men, and sex workers are seen as unworthy, it is all too easy to subject them to sexual violence as a way to maintain their oppression.
When it comes to responding to sexual violence, accessible, survivor-centered reporting systems are key. That means helplinesIf you have experienced sexual violence and do not know who to turn to, you can find help online. For instance on the website of Helping Survivors, a US based initiative that helps survivors to seek help. Visit their website here: https://helpingsurvivors.org/ close and confidential advisors should be easy to reach; health services must be available and staffed with medical personnel trained to treat survivors of sexual violence; and proceeding with legal charges must be possible without having to recount one’s experience over and over again whilst being questioned and disbelieved or, worse still, blamed for being violated.
Ending our current rape culture – which promotes impunity of perpetrators, shames survivors and makes groups at risk of sexual violence responsible for their own safety – means addressing the full spectrum of exclusionary, discriminatory and patriarchal aggressions, from a catcall in the street to victim-blaming by the police.