Shaming Female Sexuality Perpetuates What Women Face and Sexual Assault Victims Endure

The dozens of sexual-assault claims against Bill Cosby strike me on multiple levels. Even though we live in an era that is meant to typify major advancement in women’s rights and issues through the centuries, it seems like we are sometimes still in the dark ages.

Based on systemic, religious and cultural influences, there are women globally whose human rights are regularly violated; however, what we also are learning is that many victims of sexual assault, even in modern and progressive America, suffer untold violations. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported that almost one in five woman have been raped in their lifetimes, but national crime surveys, as well as how sexual-assault research is conducted, reveal much lower numbers and a huge disparity.

These gaps in statistics reinforce (as shown in studies) that many victims of sexual assault never have their day in court. The stigma attached to these kinds of under-reported crimes and rape, especially when victims don’t have advocates and believers, demands a look. Sexual assault and rape victims suffer long-term effects such as shame, feeling they somehow are to blame, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But I also challenge if there is a prevailing societal condemnation of female physicality by linking sexual assault to a woman’s appearance or sexuality, and if we are generally more comfortable with male sexuality in America.

People label. They judge whether women are smart or bimbos. Loose or reserved. Deserving or damaged. Matronly or hip. Wife or girlfriend material. Sexy or prim. Society exacts a mainstreamed vantage point, but women are also assessed through multiple perspectives — from how men judge beauty, to what a “good” woman is.

These issues frustrate me. Do we program women to either embrace, flaunt, dismiss or hide their femininity and sexuality? Do we uphold the rights of women to define their own senses of beauty and identities while they navigate their lives? My gender is comprised of artists, teachers, elected officials, technology experts, terrific mothers, doctors, police officers, community activists, and successful entrepreneurs, but also deeply sensual beings.

Messaging Morality

In college, I had an intoxicated friend who was raped in a car outside a dance club by someone she knew. Friends and I found her in the parking lot disheveled and in shock.

We got her to the campus police and subsequently to the local police. But she was upset about what her parents would think and she did not pursue criminal charges.

Years later, when I was a newspaper reporter covering crime and court cases in Maryland, I became increasingly aware of these kinds of complexities.

The state prosecutor once dismissed a rape case in which the victim had a prior prostitution conviction. Though complicated, it jarred me because the two should not be inextricably linked.

During that same period at the newspaper, a nonprofit that works with abuse victims provided me the journalistic opportunity to see what takes place at a hospital after a woman reports a rape. (This came via permission from an anonymous victim and clearance from the organization and hospital.)

I learned about the rape kit and the interactions between medical professionals and a victim. I found out about the community support system in place. I spoke briefly with the young woman. I assured her I would never reveal her identity, and explained that the story would provide an important public-education component and reality check.

That night, it became apparent how important it is to allow victims to tell their stories in their own time, but also how crucial it is to gather evidence and details.

Yet the most meaningful takeaway was that the mental health and medical communities were poised to help this young woman go on, and not judge or cast aspersions. After all, this was a moment irrevocably frozen in a life, molded by a background, history and influences, and then quickly fractured.

I was honored the victim allowed me to be there.

Healthy Sexuality vs. Ongoing Shame

Sexuality can be innate, learned, acquired or shaped. But it is part of the human experience and to break cycles and grow mentally healthy people, we must understand sensuality and sexuality, not denounce them. They are normal, not perversions.

Throughout the centuries, people have shamed and blamed females and victims because of their appearances and perspectives on morality, while pushing mixed messages. Every day, many women might not be sure if they are supposed to be like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Victoria Secret’s model, Rachael Ray or a stay-at-home mom.

Likewise, we do immutable damage when we blame sexual assault on a woman’s sexuality, the way she dresses, or how she expresses herself and looks. It is wrong when we view any woman as overtly sexualized. The point about crimes involving sex isn’t the sex — it’s the violation. So, when we see sexual assault as something coaxable, it colors everything.

Why? Because this may be what a victim learns through the abuse: that sexuality exists separately from the “whole self” and there must be some internal error, or some damage in her, that cannot be remedied. In some instances, a scenario emerges that she IS the mistake. She was too drunk, too sexy, too open, too bad … too something.

Women Aren’t from Venus

Unless we respect women’s varied voices and stop stereotyping what female sexuality should be and look like, we just continue victimizing those who are sexually assaulted. A percentage will find themselves on risky paths (prostitution or stripping) or end up with substance-abuse issues or intimacy problems.

Still, we lessen the value of women collectively when we continue to split women into categories — the chaste and the pure, for example, or the naughty and the tart.

We don’t do this to men. American society does not usually castigate those who have/had multiple sex partners or bodies they take pride in.

Likewise, we don’t say that males who commit pedophilia do so because it has something to do with some inherent sexuality in the child.

We don’t isolate successful married male executives who admire pretty young women. In fact, we build them lavish strip clubs.

And we have advertisers, drug manufacturers and insurance companies all aflutter over whether men can maintain an erection; however, where is the discussion about women living with sexual dysfunction, which is a prevalent outcome of rape?

We fail in the familial, medical, social and emotional realms, and end up with damaged people, by pigeonholing victims we see as sexual or by suggesting they deserved it or are lying. They end up scarred, not only by the crime, but by the way some view or treat them.

This is the worst thing we can do to a woman who has suffered sexual trauma — to leave her fearful and shamed and just hope she comes out okay on the other side. All of these things create victims in perpetuity, versus powerful survivors who refuse to allow abuse to define their lives.

Many rape victims never get justice or a legal finding that helps them heal. So let us reflect on how we can usher in some peace in their lives and show compassion.

Comments

  1. A person would require much help from family, friends and professionals to grow and be mentally, and possibly physically, healthy. So much of the time, the abuse or tape goes unreported. Is early education the answer? How early?

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