When we met each other three years ago over french-fries at a classy late night McDonald’s hangout, we had no idea we would be embarking together on a humble but hopeful journey to create a safe space for survivors of sexual violence. Motivated by our own personal traumas and the similar experiences of many of our friends, we decided that shaking out heads in dismay at horrifying news articles wasn’t enough. We wanted to start a larger conversation.
Many of us have watched in horror as story after story of rape and sexual abuse have come to the forefront of news and media in the recent months. We react with disbelief, anger, and judgment. We explain the violence away by clicking out tongues and commenting, “Some people are just animals!” or we turn the scrutiny onto the victim. “Why would she be alone with a man?”
Our conversations about sexual violence begin and end with these questions. If we think of rape and sexual abuse as isolated incidents which only happen to that type of person, in that area and in that community, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility to the victims. After all, there isn’t much we can do besides show momentary outrage before returning to our daily lives, right?
Wrong. This attitude of resignation and detachment is precisely what contributes to the problem. We must act, but first we must define and unpack a phrase we frequently hear tossed around in the media: rape culture.
Rape culture is a term which describes a culture in which norms, ideals, practices, and the media normalize, condone, and even glorify sexual violence. It is insidious in nature because those who participate in it generally don’t realize they are a part of rape culture. Anytime we have said that men cannot control their urges or that a girl would avoid harassment if she dressed more modestly, we are participating in rape culture. Anytime we have not vociferously condemned the perpetrator and instead assigned some of the blame onto the victim, we are participating in rape culture. Our words feed into larger social norms and these norms, in turn, perpetuate a community-wide attitude of passivity. When we set up walls built on denial and stigmatization, we are, in fact, creating an obstruction to the fight against sexual violence. God calls upon us to fight and drive out all forms of injustice and oppression, but to do this, we must ask honest and empathetic questions about sexual violence in our communities. And yes—we have to talk about sex.
The stigmatization of sexual violence stems from the way we frame and discuss sexuality itself. Unfortunately, ideals of purity, virginity, and marriage create an incomplete picture of sexuality that often ignores consent as an essential component of a healthy sexual relationship. This, coupled with a reluctance to discuss sexuality in general, leaves new generations without a healthy framework with which to combat the often destructive messages and outright myths churned out by the media. If we can foster an atmosphere where individuals feel safe to express concerns and ask questions about sex, we can then begin to challenge pathologies in our communities that contribute to rape culture.
A great place to initiate these conversations is in our mosques and churches. We need to ask ourselves, how do the socio-religious norms we internalize help perpetuate harmful assumptions and attitudes about gender and sex? Once we identify these norms, what can we do to dismantle them? What should our religious leaders do to guide their communities on these issues? If we admit that our faiths demand that we show compassion to those who are suffering, we cannot possibly allow stigma, judgment and silence to keep us from having a candid conversation about sexual abuse and, more importantly, helping those in need.
When communities label sexual assault as taboo, we begin to drift toward pointing the finger at the victim, assuming that they are the cause of their own victimization. Too many times brave men and women sought help from their religious and community leaders after having been abused, only to find themselves be rebuked or blamed. Ideally, communities should be the first line of support a person can count on. Not only do these responses add insult to the injury of survivors of sexual violence, they also perpetuate an apathetic silence that allows for cycles of violence to continue.
These conversations are challenging, intimidating and embarrassing. But they are precisely why we founded The Cathartist. Beyond providing a forum for survivors of sexual violence to share their voices, we hope these stories help others to understand both the causes and consequences of sexual violence. Today, let it start with you, the individual.
Julie and Navila are co-founders of The Catharist, a forum that aims to provide a safe space for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories, as well as a platform to voice ideas and strategies to combat rape culture in our communities. Share why you speak out against sexual violence on their Tumblr, Words Over Violence, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook at @TheCathartist.
Note: The title and article have been edited by the editorial board and do not entirely reflect the original content of the piece.