Saturday, April 1, 2017

Sexual assault awareness month

Apparently, this month is sexual assault awareness month. Somehow, I was unaware of this occasion for awareness - or at least, I'd forgotten that sexual assault was allocated specifically to April, at least until I saw someone else's Facebook post about it.

Who is this month for? I was as aware of sexual assault at the start of April 2003 as I was at the end of it - being assaulted halfway through that month changed my relationship to sexual assault in an intensely personal way, but growing up as a girl in this world, I'd always been aware. I always will be aware.

If sexual assault awareness is directed at women, that's insensitive at best. Most women are aware of sexual assault when we take the bus home at night. We are aware of sexual assault when we're the last one in the office with a male co-worker we don't know so well. We are aware of sexual assault when we enter public washrooms alone, when we contact a new match on Tinder, and when we take a taxi. We can't afford to be unaware. Non-binary people are quite likely even more aware of sexual assault, depending on their gender presentation.

What is the goal of sexual assault awareness month? If it's so that women know how to protect ourselves - well, we already do. It just doesn't work sometimes, because rape culture is really that pervasive. Sometimes, all the vigilance, looking out for your friends, staying sober, dressing modestly, staying in at night, watching your drink, learning self-defense, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum, is futile. Rape happens because rapists commit rape, and not because their targets are unaware of this possibility.

Men are aware of sexual assault. Just about every comment thread about rape culture has guys insisting that statistics on the frequency of sexual assault are overblown, or hijacking the conversation to be about how men get raped too (and of course, rape can happen to anyone! just at different frequencies). Awareness is not the issue here. The problem is misogyny that's so deep-seated that far too many men don't give a shit that this happens to women because they too think they're entitled to women's bodies.

Can we have a "consent awareness month" or a "rape culture education month" instead? Something with real initiatives that grant meaningful amounts of money to organizations that empower bystanders to intervene, that teach boys and men that they have a responsibility to seek consent. Something that talks about how microaggressions can create a climate that enables rapists. And we need to do more than just post on social media about it. Individuals, even prominent ones, can only do so much. We need funding to help engage with people who can prevent rape. We need political changes that empower survivors to get counselling.

I find this shows some problems with ambiguously-defined awareness months: what is the goal of a month of "awareness"? We can dress up in all sorts of different colours for all sorts of different causes, but ultimately the problem isn't that we don't know about something. The problem is that the people who have the power to change something don't make it a priority. Grassroots initiatives make us feel like we're doing something, at the risk of enabling further inertia on the parts of governments, major funding agencies, and so forth.

Rant over. It's time to be "aware" of sexual assault for another thirty days, right?

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