These are questions that came up for me in two sessions I attended at the recent UN Commission on the Status of Women conference.
One form of sexual violence is named prostitution and was defined by a former prostitute in a session sponsored by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) I attended as: “paid rape,” “sexual torture,” “the commercialization of sex,” and “an act of desperation because of the lack of alternatives.”
In a session sponsored by No Limits for Women sexual violence was described as a tool to keep women in subservience to men. It is the message every girl gets that her body exists for the use of others. It is the message that women must be cautious and wary of menace at all times. It is the message purveyed by corporations that our bodies are not right as they are and need to be physically or cosmetically altered to make them more appealing.
Sexual violence can take many forms. Among the women panelists in the No Limits session was a woman who told of being sexually brutalized during a civil war in her country by five soldiers and even her husband. A woman from Cuba spoke of being taught to endure emotional abuse as she grew up and that made her vulnerable to harassment as an adult. A woman from Sweden told of being sexually harassed in her workplace.
Where does sexual violence come from? As human societies developed, it has become embedded in many of our social institutions. The suppression of women by men was the first oppression, said a panelist in the CATW session, and men in general seemed to be identified as the source of the problem. One woman in the audience even suggested that men who rape or buy sex are programmed that way genetically.
The moderator in the No Limits session described the current situation as an “epidemic of sexual violence,” and blamed slavery, colonization and genocide for its increase. Historically, a small group of men took resources from one group of people and gave them to another. The anger and resentment this caused has been passed down from generation to generation. In this formulation, sexual violence becomes an addiction for some men in that sexual activity, like taking drugs, can “take the edge off” painful feelings of rage or guilt.
How do we get rid of sexual violence? Here is where the presentations in the two sessions diverged greatly. As their analysis identified men as the source of the problem, the panelists in the CATW session focused on legal means to restrain their demand for sexual services, advocating the so-called “Nordic Model” of law enforcement in place in Sweden and Norway. In this model, women are not criminalized for prostitution but male buyers of sex are prosecuted. A psychologist from Germany, where prostitution is legal, said that many women being prostituted suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Expert traumatalogists there, among others, should call for an end to legalization, she said.
Among the No Limits panel, men were not seen as the problem but as potential allies to women in seeking the end of sexual violence. There were three men on the panel who spoke of the ways they had been emotionally damaged themselves by the violence in society. One said that when they are growing up many boys are targets of violence within their families and outside of them. They then act this out against others as adults. Another man, who said he had been raped as a boy, told of witnessing the abuse of women and being punished when he tried to stop it. The third spoke about learning to keep silent about abuse he saw in order to be accepted as one of the boys.
All the panelists in the No Limits session stressed the need for emotional healing in order to rid ourselves of the hurts we have received in a culture that promotes sexual violence. No Limits is a project of Re-evaluation Counseling, a grassroots organization run by volunteers. The three women and three men on the panel all spoke of value of being listened to as they worked through painful experiences and feelings in RC groups. The audience in the CSW session had a chance to sample this kind of healing process through two short “mini-sessions” in which pairs of people took turns sharing their thoughts about what they were hearing from the panel.
~ Peggy Ray