Ne Me Touche Pas: Part 2

Don’t Touche Me: Rape Culture and its Role in Perpetuating Sexual Violence Against Female Presenting Persons

Author’s Note: Sexual violence is a complicated, multilayered concept that is widespread and is considered to be one of the most traumatic, pervasive, and most common human rights violations.

In this article, I will be focusing mostly on sexual harassment, only one of the many types of sexual violence that exist, and its relation to femme-presenting persons.

In no way, does this article have the intention to deny or reduce the importance of raising awareness of sexual violence against men or other non-femme-presenting persons.

For more information and sources regarding sexual violence including its definition, types of sexual violence, effects, and the statutes of limitations in the United States please see the links to RAINN (Rape and Incest National Network) and Wikipedia provided:

Vocabulary as used in the article:

Offender — while “offender” is often used to describe a person who commits a criminal or illegal act in judicial terms, for the sake of this article, it is used to describe the person who commits an act of sexual harassment even though sexual harassment is only considered to be a violation of the law in a work or school setting.

Rape culture enabler — any individual who, knowingly or unknowingly, contributes to creating a society in which rape or sexual violence is normalized or expected.

Sexual violence — “Sexual violence is any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person’s sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim” (Wikipedia). In this article, it is used as an umbrella term for the terms listed below.

Sexual aggression — An act of sexual violence that is not considered sexual assault or sexual harassment but is still performed against a person’s will through the use of force or coercion.

Sexual harassment — “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual factors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the [workplace, learning environment, or other public space] (RAINN). Additional definitions include an emphasis on repeated verbal or physical acts performed without consent. In this article, the focus is on sexual harassment in public places.

Sexual assault — “Sexual assault is an act in which a person intentionally sexually touches another person without that person’s consent, or coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will” (Wikipedia). The most known type of sexual assault is rape.

Target –– substitute for victim. Used to refer to those who experience or ar targeted by acts of sexual violence.

Being a homebody as a high school student, I had never experienced sexual harassment before. I had never been catcalled or stalked and I had never had anyone simply come up to me and begin making unwanted sexual advances, either physical or verbal. I had heard stories in the news and had participated in numerous feminist discussions in school, but neither had prepared me for my first instance of sexual harassment that night in Paris (see Ne Me Touche Pas: Part 1). As a result, I didn’t handle any of the three encounters very well. I made mistakes, overestimated my ability to function under pressure of that kind, and severely underestimated the nuanced complexity of sexual violence that makes situations like sexual harassment so difficult maneuver.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as actions including but not limited to “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual factors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or learning environment” (Wikipedia). In most modern legal contexts, sexual harassment is illegal as it generally violates civil laws, however, in many cases, it is not considered to be a criminal act.

While this is and remains the backbone for its definition, the legal and social understanding of sexual harassment varies by culture.

For example, many feminist groups in both the United States and France are opening sexual harassment’s definition to include public spaces like bars, clubs, stores, restaurants, and even the streets. In addition, these groups are placing more of an emphasis on the nature of the act as being repetitive or occurring a certain number of times in order to view an incident as harassment as opposed to classifying it under the grey area of sexual aggression.

Due to its lack of judicial weight in many societies, there is very little that targets can do after an instance of sexual harassment in public spaces. For example, even if an individual decides to file a police report, chances of pursuit and charges remain low. As a result, many targets of sexual harassment are often silenced and forced to endure the consequences of their offender’s actions. Furthermore, many “one time” incidents of sexual harassment in public spaces such as bars, clubs, or in the street have become normalized and their gravity has become reduced with the main reason for this being rape culture.

What is Rape Culture?

Rape culture is a sociological concept that describes a setting or environment in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about sex, gender, and sexuality. The idea of rape culture was developed by second-wave feminists in the United States around the 1970s who argued that social behaviors such as victim-blaming, slut-shaming, sexual objectification, the trivialization of rape, denial of widespread rape, and the refusal to acknowledge the effects of sexual violence were also at fault in enabling rape in addition to the rapist themself.

Rape Culture’s Role in Perpetuating Violence Against Femme- Presenting Persons

The victim-blaming and slut-shaming aspects of rape culture play a key role in the perpetuation of sexual violence against femme-presenting persons as they allow people to place the blame for incidents of sexual violence on the target rather than on the offender. As a result, the idea that offenders can and will always rape people and that it is the target’s responsibility to ensure that they don’t become victimized is maintained. Consequently, incidents of sexual violence become normalized and the gravity of the problem is minimized which lets acts of sexual violence continue to exist.

For example, by telling femme-presenting persons to “be careful with the way that they dress” or saying that these individuals were “asking for it,” rape culture enablers contribute to creating a society in which rape is normalized or expected because rape culture tells the story that “because rape exists and will happen to those who aren’t careful — women, girls, and other femme-presenting people — must pay attention to their appearance, clothing, and behavior as to avoid attracting unwanted sexual advances.”

In the case of what happened to me, where I chose to walk home alone at 4:30 in the morning, a rape culture enabler might ask me what I was thinking walking home by myself at that hour. In this instance, the blame is, again, placed on the target of the incident rather than asking the offender why he was harassing a femme-presenting person who has the same right as any male/masculine-presenting person to be able to walk unaccompanied in the streets without fear.

Placing the blame onto targets of sexual harassment, aggression, or assault perpetuates sexual violence and rape culture because it makes the erroneous assumption that these acts are pervasive or have and always will exist in society rather than taking the approach that sexual violence, for moral and ethical reasons, should not be accepted or willingly allowed to exist in any society. In taking the latter approach, any instance of sexual violence would become easily viewed as problematic with the blame rightfully being placed on the offender. In turn, this would allow society to better handle and reduce cases of sexual violence.

Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Public

Unfortunately, modern societies are a long way from being ‘rape culture-free.’ As a result, it would be irresponsible to simply permit people to do as they please without encouraging them to factor in potential dangers. Even if everyone were to agree that offenders are the sole party held accountable for incidents of sexual violence, because these acts continue to affect a diverse population, those who are vulnerable to them cannot simply wear whatever they want or walk home alone at night. Therefore, it is crucial that those who could potentially be targeted for acts of sexual harassment, aggression, or assault be aware of such risks and act accordingly.

But this sounds just like victim-blaming. You might be thinking. The key difference between victim-blaming and being risk-aware is the placement of “the blame.”

In being risk-aware, a target’s behavior, appearance, or decisions are not scrutinized as they are with victim-blaming, rather, these individuals are simply encouraged to weigh the potential dangers that exist for them as a consequence of being easier targets for acts of sexual violence. Additionally, in this case, the offenders are still held fully accountable for the incitement of each incident. Encouraging individuals to be risk-aware is not equitable to telling these what they can or cannot do or wear.

So what if you are aware of the risks that exist for you and you take care to weigh the potential dangers of your decisions, but you still find yourself in a circumstance where you are the target of sexual violence?

As many you know, the sympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for stimulating the body’s fight-flight-or-freeze response) automatically takes over in high-stress situations which includes circumstances of sexual harassment, aggression, or assault. As a result, it can be difficult to think clearly or make quick decisions when your body is pumping with adrenaline and your nervous system is deciding whether to have you fight, run away, or freeze.

“It’s more of a ping pong game than a chess match.” — Elle Ziehl

What my parents failed to understand is that these types of situations are run on a decision by decision basis. It is nearly impossible to foresee and end goal and carry out a plan of action accordingly. Most times it’s a continuous cycle of an assessment of the current situation, a decision made, an action taken, followed by an evaluation of that decision based on its result.

The most important thing to remember in any incident of sexual violence is to do what feels safest in the present moment.

That “present moment” changes minute to minute, second to second. What might feel safest in one instant might not feel safe to do later down the road.

For example, my father, as a cisgender/heterosexual white man, asked me in the context of the first incident: “Why didn’t you turn around and kick the guy in the balls?”

Well, father, if you would so like to know the answer, I would have to tell you that “turning around and kicking the guy in the balls” never occurred to me as an option because it never felt safe to do. Assessing the situation and factoring in the possibility that an aggressive defense could have escalated the situation, the flight response felt safest at that moment and so I made decisions in an attempt to get away. As I recounted in part 1, those decisions failed, so the next safest decision I made was to ask a friend for help. In the end, I was able to get away unscathed.

There is no “correct” way to handle a situation of sexual harassment, aggression, or assault. There is no “one better option” out of the three––fight, flight, or freeze––that your sympathetic nervous system gives you. Every situation is different. What works in one situation may not work in another.

Have trust in your body’s natural response as it will lead you to do what makes you feel safest.

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