HB2 update: If we’re going to talk about sexual violence, let’s really talk about it

By Tara Romano, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina and President of North Carolina Women United

This article was originally published at NC Policy Watch, and is a companion piece to anearlier article on the original Charlotte anti-discrimination policy that launched HB2, the anti-LGBTQ bill heard round the country.  I felt compelled to write about this again because I still heard and saw sexual violence myths being used to justify this bill. Perpetuating myths about the who, what, where and how of the sexual violence epidemic in our country typically demonizes marginalized people – the LGBTQ community; immigrants; people of color; the poor – in an effort to scapegoat the “other” because we don’t want to face the realities of who is actually perpetuating this violence (lost in the heated rhetoric about immigrants being classified on the whole as rapists, for example, are stories like the founder of the anti-immigrant group the Minutemen recently being convicted of child sexual assault).  Demonizing marginalized groups for sexual violence often times leaves people with little political and social power at risk of danger themselves, while ignoring – and often, enabling – those who are actually perpetuating assault (would the Stanford swimmer be out of jail so soon if he were not a straight, white male athlete?).

 And when we ignore the “why” of sexual assault, we’ll never be able to stop it. Sexual violence has everything to do with power and control, and little to do with sexual attraction (any sexual gratification comes from the power exerted, not the attraction). Those with more power in our society are not certainly the only ones who will commit sexual violence, but when they do, they are much more likely to get away with it. Repeatedly. Our silence around sexual assault is a result of our discomfort about the topic, and about sex itself. Our silence is what allows this violence to flourish. Myths will not make us safer, even if they temporarily make us more comfortable. It’s not easy to face these realities, but it’s the only way we will eliminate this violence.

A high school football team’s locker room is host to the sexual harassment and assault of its freshmen members every week. Sexual violence survivors increasingly come forward to share their stories of abuse at the hands of their clergy. A coach on a Big Ten sports team is found guilty of molesting numerous children over a period of decades. A 13-year old girl is raped by her older brother’s classmates and left unconscious in the snow on her front lawn.

These are just a few examples of the sexual violence that makes the news, and the reality of what children in our society experience. It is estimated that one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys in this country experience some type of sexual violence by the time they turn 18. Approximately 69% of teen sexual assaults occur in a private residence. Only about 10% of perpetrators of child sexual assault are strangers to the children they victimize, while 30% of the perpetrators are family members of the child (the other 60% are family friends, neighbors, coaches, clergy, babysitters, etc.).

As I’ve written before, the heated rhetoric created by HB2 has us looking for predators in all the wrong places. Transgender people are much more likely to be victims of abuse and violence than the perpetrators of it. Indeed, there is no evidence of transgender people committing assault in public bathrooms in the states and cities that have passed the ordinances that our state government now forbids its cities to pass. HB2 also asks us to accept the notion that a sexual predator is simultaneously willing to commit a felony rape but completely unwilling to disobey a municipal ordinance about which bathroom to enter.

This notion has become something of a punchline for those pointing out the fallacy that HB2 is about preventing sexual assault. But there is nothing funny about the reality of sexual violence. As someone who has spent many years as an advocate for victims of domestic and sexual violence, and who continues to be frustrated by the unwillingness of our society to face up to and discuss the reality of sexual violence, I see the justification for HB2 as yet another abdication of our responsibility to protect our kids from predators. This sexual violence epidemic plaguing our nation is not the result of us ignoring the possibility of “stranger danger”; it is the byproduct of our unwillingness to confront the perpetrators we know are responsible and to hold them accountable for their actions.

I am not suggesting this is happening because we don’t care; I am suggesting that so many of us feel so uncomfortable with this problem – and sometimes so overwhelmed by it – that we prefer to ignore it, hoping we never have to actually face it personally. That as scary as these stories of bathroom predators may be, they are still less frightening than realizing our friend; our relative; our neighbor; our kids’ babysitter, community mentor or coach; and our church leader are all using their relationships and their good standing within society to abuse and victimize children in our community.

And while there are many types of sexual violence, some of the stories that take hold in the public imagination are the ones that take on mythic proportions, and may not be as true as we have been led to believe. Some believe that societal myths and urban legends exist to allow us to create order where we feel there is none, and bring a measure of logic to something we can’t understand. Unfairly demonizing whole groups of people that are in the minority as being responsible for all social ills, including sexual violence (a still-used practice that has a long history in this country), gives some of us a feeling of control. “If we can just keep those peopleaway, we’ll be fine,” goes the thinking.

But we aren’t fine. Not only does holding on to these myths encourage discrimination and possibly violence against marginalized populations, it allows us to ignore the sexual violence happening right in front of us because those perpetrators don’t fit this narrative (how many initial concerns about Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky were written off as “horsing around”?).

And lost in the narrative around HB2 is the sexual violence – from harassment to rape – that children and young people face from their peers. Nearly half of U.S. students (7th-12th grade) say they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment at school, and 33% of girls and 25% of boys say they’ve witnessed this harassment. In a 2013 study, one-in-ten teen respondents admitted to committing an act of sexual violence against a peer, and 21% of high school girls and 10% of high school boys have said they’ve experienced dating violence. And many of us have heard aboutSteubenville and other high profile high school rape cases.

I’ve had a few conversations with concerned parents around the privacy and safety of locker rooms without the bans proposed in HB2, but I am not sure locker rooms are particularly safe places now, and that has nothing to do with someone from another gender being in there. As referenced in the beginning of this article, there have been numerous stories about high school boys sexually assaultingother boys in same-sex locker rooms (warning: those links all contain graphic descriptions of violence). And while this type of extreme violence is not as common among girls, harassment and body shaming frequently do happen in girls’ locker rooms. Better education in schools about consent and sexual violence, and improved supervision and accountability for the perpetrators of this violence is what will make our schools safer for our children. Scapegoating an already misunderstood and maligned group of children makes no one safer.

As I have written before, sexual violence is not driven by gender differences but by power imbalances. Sexual violence is about power and control, not about sexual attraction. It’s about asserting dominance over someone else, and it impacts children and young people so much because they have less power and few individual rights in our society, and are therefore much more vulnerable. And when young people and children commit this type of violence, it’s because our society has taught them that this is a way to obtain power. Legalizing discrimination and encouraging the policing of a group of people solely because of their expression of sexuality and gender identity is feeding the narrative that creates this mindset, both in young people and in adults.

Fortunately, there are many positive things we can do to stop this epidemic of sexual violence our children are facing – from expanding comprehensive sex education to providing adequate funding of prevention and service programs to promoting real discussions about the harm of rigid gender roles and toxic masculinity models.

But we have to start with a willingness to face the reality of the problem. We have to put aside our shame and discomfort in talking about sex and sexuality, and move forward from the myths. As an advocate, I hear a lot of these stories of violence, and I know it’s not easy to face these stories. But I won’t turn away, and I ask that you not turn away either.

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