Social Justice

The Respect Program’s Position on Sexual Assault Prevention as Social Justice Work

The Respect Program‘s mission is to engage the Emory community to prevent and respond to sexual assault and relationship violence. In order to fulfill this mission, fostering social justice is essential.

Social justice envisions a society that both values human rights and respects the dignity of every person and in in which all members are physically and psychologically safe.  It can sometimes be viewed as a struggle of “us” vs. “them” due to the pervasiveness of power and privilege as well as oppression. Achieving social justice can feel out of reach, existing on a societal level and ingrained in our culture. It can be difficult to connect sexual assault and intimate partner violence that often appear as incidents between individuals, back to these larger systems. However, sexual violence is a social justice issue. It is not an individual issue or a matter of miscommunication. Sexual violence prevention is linked to broader social justice movements because ending sexual violence is also linked to ending oppression.

Oppression is when a group exercises authority or power over another group in an unjust manner. Interpersonal violence disproportionately affects those who are marginalized.  Sexual assault and intimate partner violence are also not single acts or sets of acts but involve perpetrators’ reinforcement of broader systems of oppression. Sexual acts or acts of relationship abuse are simply weapons used for power and control.

The Respect Program envisions an Emory community where all students learn, work, play, and love, without experiencing or fearing sexual assault or relationship violence.  To do this, we must uproot oppression in all of its forms, as oppression is underpinned by the threat of or acts of violence.

When asked what “causes” sexual assault on a college campus, many people will say “alcohol,” “bad relationships,” “poor choices made by the victim,” “parties,” or “miscommunication.” The oppression that underlies sexual violence is what makes us say this. Oppression perpetuates the just world theory that good things must happen to good people and bad things must happen to bad people. Because of this, we blame survivors of sexual violence for what happened to them instead of examining the root causes. Alcohol didn’t sexually assault someone.  No one went to the party to be sexually assaulted.  No one makes “perfect” choices because there are systems of oppression in place.  Perhaps one’s ability to truly communicate is taken away from her or him or hir.  We say “s/he/ze was sexually assaulted.”  The actor, the perpetrator, is missing from the sentence.

Oppression perpetuates violence including physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, financial, spiritual, or cultural violence.  Violence is oppression’s greatest tool. Violence or abuse on an interpersonal level is fueled by intersecting systems of oppression. Intersectionality is defined as the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination (Crenshaw, 1989). While sexual violence is often seen as the byproduct of sexism or gender-based oppression, it is the intersection of identity that perpetuates a culture that endorses sexual violence.

The gender binary and expectations of men and women cause women to be judged for moving through the world.  Women are told when they experience sexual assault that it is their fault, that they should have realized they did not have the same freedom as men. These same ideas about gender roles damage men, teach them not to speak out against their peers who degrade women, keep them from working to end sexual violence, and silence them if they survive sexual violence. That same system teaches men that the worst thing one could be is like a woman, which continues to perpetuate hyper-masculinity and violence.  That same binary teaches us that gender non-conforming, transgender, or genderqueer who step outside of those damaging boxes deserve to experience violence because they do not conform. This leads to some of the highest rates of violence being perpetrated against transgender folks.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer survivors are silenced by the same homophobia and biphobia that leads to hate crimes, some of which include sexual violence.

Ideas about race and class also keep us from looking at the real cause of uprooting oppression.  Our society perpetuates the idea that poor men of color are perpetrating the most sexual violence, when most sexual violence is intraracial rather than interracial.  Society is taught to see victims of sexual violence as young white women who are virgins.  White women are taught to be afraid of men of color, afraid to walk alone at night, afraid of homeless men or poor men, when in reality, 73% of survivors know the person who perpetrated sexual violence against them well. This number rises to 95% on a college campus.  If white women behave sexually, they are not playing the virgin role and are seen as “asking for it.” The experiences of women of color are also silenced by this concept.

Similarly, ableism teaches us that disabled bodies are not desirable and therefore disabled folks don’t experience sexual violence.  Not only does that shame disabled folks and narrowly define sexuality, but it silences the disproportionate number of people with disabilities who experience sexual violence. Like all forms of violence, sexual violence is exacted to gain power and control. Similarly, society loops back around to place survivors in a double bind. If someone is seen as sexual or trying to look attractive, s/he/ze is seen as “asking for it.” If due to society’s lookism or sizeism, a survivor is seen as unattractive s/he/ze is disbelieved due to folks believing that only attractive people are sexually assaulted.   Despite the fact that perpetrators typically plan their sexual assaults in advance and have regular partners or access to other sex partners, oppression defines sexual violence as about desire.  Those who are desirable are asking for it, and perpetrators (who are typically men) are seen as unable to control their desire. 

To end sexual violence we must understand its root cause: oppression–the idea that people exert power over other people. It is often committed by individuals and is perpetuated and excused by society. Therefore eradicating the systems of overlapping oppressions must be at the heart of preventing and responding to sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

-          Written by Ruku Machiwalla ‘15C in collaboration with Lauren (LB) Bernstein, LMSW, Summer 2013

Adapted to Emory University with permission by a team of Respect Program staff and interns from the University of Michigan’s Striving for Justice document.