Cultures of Silence: rethinking GBV prevention education

In the back of Thursday’s issue of the Cambodia Daily was an article headlining “Girl, 7, Raped, Murdered in Kompong Speu”. Kampong Speu is a province not far from Phnom Penh. Perhaps the age of the victim and the extremity of the violence used against her seem ghastly and unbelievable, but rapes and rape-murders of young children are frighteningly commonplace here. Many people blame a culture of impunity which overlooks and trivializes violent crimes in Cambodia. This culture of impunity would not be thriving as it is today were it not for an underlying and more prevalent culture of silence. Rape is possibly the most under-reported crime here– which, considering that in January alone there were 24 rapes, 11 of which were child rapes, shapes up to a very poor situation.

The article ends with a statement from a bureau director at the Ministry of Interior: “We found out that victims and perpetrators always tend to know each other.”

Statistics in the States say that between 75-90% of rapes are acquaintances rapes. According to available data, that also holds true in Cambodia. Oftentimes, victims are raped near their homes, often within shouting distance of neighbors. So how is it that so many perpetrators can rape and go unnoticed?

This is a multifaceted problem, but a major contributing factor is a culture of silence surrounding anything which relates to sex. Rape survivors have reported to police, village chiefs, and other authorities that they did not cry out for help or waited hours or days to report the crime because they were afraid of the consequences. That is, the survivors face consequences– whereas the perpetrators often walk away with reputation and civil liberties intact.

Another darker, more ominous reason is that people also look the other way. Even when they are aware of someone raping a child, especially if it is occurring within the family, to speak of it would be to bring shame upon the family. Moreover, to report it to the police would be to betray the family, and if Khmer culture promotes any kind of loyalty it is familial loyalty.

by MSLucy

This culture of silence also functions (though perhaps to a lesser degree) in the U.S.

Why do people remain silent after something horrible has happened to them? Self-blame. Denial. Fear that others won’t believe them, or will mock them or discourage them from speaking out. Fear of retaliation by the perpetrator. Fear of other consequences (related to work, family, school, etc.) Debilitating depression. There is rarely a single reason that inhibits a survivor from telling others what has happened to them, but all of these reasons are fueled by rape culture: if you are a woman, why didn’t you think twice before letting that guy come home with you? If you are a strong, independent woman, guess those self-defense classes didn’t pay off, huh? If you are a man– well, men just don’t get raped. If you are gay, rape is simply a pathology of the condition of gayness. If you are Black, rape is an integral part of Black culture– don’t you ever watch BET?! The “reasons” are numerous; the fact that they lack reason has no bearing on their prevalence. This is what rape culture looks like, and it functions to shut you up.

Lately I’ve been pondering the ineffectiveness of “sexual assault prevention education” back home. During college I attending a session or two of these, myself, often promoted by the university with all good intentions. Likewise, after college I attended a session which was conducted by a sorority and hosted by the university. These sessions provided very little statistical information on rape, and very little information about what to do after you or someone you know has been raped. The main focus was on advice-giving for how to not get raped, which tended to be “monitor your drinks,” “don’t go out alone, go with friends,” “never walk home alone; make sure your friends get home safely, too,” and “avoid going home with people you have just met.”

This advice, however, still functions on the principles that rapes are largely perpetrated by people we have never met before, often in unfamiliar places, and that ultimately the responsibility for not getting raped falls on the potential victim. All of these ideas are ultimately unhelpful and ignore significant facts: the majority of rapes (possibly a greater majority than we know, since acquaintance rape is even less likely to be reported than stranger rape, for a variety of reasons) are perpetrated by people familiar to the victim, they are often perpetrated in places we have been before (and perhaps even consider places of safety, including our homes), and finally and most importantly, the perpetrator is responsible for rape, not the victim. As in, 100% responsible. No, that dress you wore does not make you 5% accountable, or the fact that you invited the perpetrator into your home before he raped you doesn’t make you a little a fault. No. The rapist is responsible for the rape.

I’ve often wondered, how can one make rape prevention education more effective without denying reality, which is that even if you take every “precaution” you may still experience rape?

The first mistake may be giving people a false sense of security by suggesting that taking precaution will reduce their chances of being raped. Sure, we can suggest safety tips like “safety in numbers”, “monitor your alcohol consumption since it is the number one date rape drug”, etc. But they should not be administered as a solution. In that sense, it is better to promote the truth that rape is not the fault of the survivor, that fault lies completely with the perpetrator. Knowing this fact will empower many more people to come forward after they have experienced rape, as they will be less likely to place all blame on themselves and less fearful (if only marginally) of other people placing blame on them.

Does that mean that rape prevention should focus on the perpetrators, and not survivors? Of course not, they are equally important.

The major taboo of talking about rape is still well and alive in our “outspoken” American culture. In spite of slow progress being made by the anti-rape community to reduce the stigma and ill treatment which survivors endure, there is still a great deal of shame and self-blame that survivors must face. Any rape prevention education program should make a focal point of its curriculum the elimination of stigma. I think there are many ways to go about this, but one very powerful way to reduce stigma is to encourage people to speak out about their own rape, in a safe and supportive environment. I have experienced group dialogues wherein a safe space was provided; once one survivor had the courage to speak about their own rape, others poured out their stories in what often seemed to be a flood of relief: “Finally, someone is listening, and they care.”

In the same vein, people who trivialize or ignore rape are just as responsible for rape prevention. To say, “I don’t want to see it, hear about it, or talk about it,” while at the same time participating in a larger rape culture that promotes sexual violence in everything from magazine articles to music videos to pornographic movies, is to condone rape. No, rape is not a comfortable subject; if it was, maybe it wouldn’t be so prevalent. But breaking down the barriers of silence (while simultaneously halting our voyeuristic indulgence of rape culture) will be crucial to ending survivor stigma and achieving real justice, which is holding rapists accountable.

These are just the first steps. Achieving them will help us move into a culture wherein all sexual violence is identified as unacceptable, and that any form of education, commerce, entertainment, etc. which trivializes, ignores, exploits, or profits from is also unacceptable. There are many steps ahead of us, though, and many questions which first need to be openly discussed: What is sexual violence? How does it function in the context of relationships? In the context of society? What is love? What does it mean that love and sexual violence often occur in overlapping functional spheres? Until these questions become acceptable questions to ask, we will continue to live in a rape culture. To encourage discussion of these questions and related subjects should be a fundamental goal of rape prevention education.


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