Post 412.

THE THING about sexual abuse and sexual violence is that, in some way, we are all complicit. This is a hard truth we must confront. It’s like those in the field say, someone always knows.

Someone knows the uncle that was inappropriate to one niece, but assumes the experience didn’t happen to others. Someone knows the father who is predatory to her cousins, but assumes her siblings’ safety. Someone knows that a friend’s father tried to kiss her, but never expected he would do it to others until 40 years later, when another teenager tells her story. Someone knows the grandparent whose bad-touch behaviour they experienced, but would never jeopardise her reputation, or that of the family. Someone knows the partner who is abusive, but who he never thought would turn to murder.

Someone knows the taxi driver who impregnated a teenager, but assumed he wasn’t a violent rapist. Someone knows the cousin who tried to rape her, but didn’t tell all the other cousins, thinking maybe it happened to her alone. Someone knows the men who overlook their friends’ behaviour, the explicit photos of barely-18s which they share in the sports team’s WhatsApp group or the teenage prostitutes they eye up in brothels.

Someone knows the guy who sexually harasses new, young women in the office, and spoke to him about his behaviour, assuming that would make it stop rather than move to a different location or victim. Someone knows the powerful men and their sons, the killers and their trail of kidnapped women, and the police who traffic migrant minors for sex.

Someone always knows, but it’s complicated. Those who experience abuse or violence, particularly as children, are more likely to stay silent than tell. They may not understand what happened to them and be left confused. They may have a vague sense that telling would cause trouble and don’t want to be blamed. They may be scared, or they may purposefully or unknowingly forget, sometimes for decades.

Their survival strategy may be never to be alone with that predator, who may also be a family friend, family or a friend. They may tell a peer who agrees to keep their confidence.

Very often, they don’t expect that it’s happened to others or will happen to others, until another victim speaks out or it reaches the police, and we are surprised in our shoes at the reminder that predators, abusers or those who behave in sexually inappropriate ways inevitably do so repeatedly.

What is amazing is how many victims never say a word or never tell their closest friends for decades or never heal, how many remain afraid of what people will say and whether they will be believed, and how many wonder if speaking up might have saved another. Even survivors will likely tell you just one of many stories.

The rest of us keep secrets. For our own self-preservation, out of self-blame, because of love or loyalty, or as an act of sheer denial because we don’t want to know. Maybe we want to keep the peace or keep things in the past. Maybe it’s too messy and we cannot cope. Maybe we don’t take it seriously and think that everyone turned out okay. Maybe these are our friends or family, and everyone knows they are so already. Maybe there was nothing we could do then as bystanders or witnesses, and we remain in that place still.

So many of us have continued to include those whose behaviour should never have been tolerated, denying victims’ credibility and erasing their injury. So many of us have chosen to focus on good memories at the expense of truth. So many of us love and protect predators.

I think about this frequently. The painful stories women friends have told me about those who remain in our midst. The stories in my family about which I have kept quiet.

What is the value of such silence and what is its alternative, and who prepares you for those consequences? I think about this because we seem to believe we can separate predators from ourselves. We talk about ending perpetration. We don’t talk enough about ending complicity.

My argument is simple. Perpetrators of sexual violence, whether sexual abusers nor sexual harassers or rapists, rarely act once, against only one victim. It is rare that others around know nothing of the personality or of other incidents, perhaps even decades ago.

What, then, is our responsibility? For, one of us always knows.

Post 274.

Zi came home from school with minor injuries. A boy had pushed her down making her bleed from her knee. Another day, one kicked her in the neck, somehow, and it hurt her for a week. Next time, a third hit her in her eye. The physical violence wasn’t purposeful, the boys were being wild. But I wondered if there was a later lesson, that men can behave how they choose and women must learn to manage their own safety or risk injury.

The fact of ‘boys being boys’ as the denominator of social rules isn’t good enough when spaces are shared. One of the boys was also calling her and other children names. I said she should tell him not to call her names, she doesn’t like it and to stop. She said, he wouldn’t listen and would anyway. I said tell the other boys that they have to make sure how they want to behave doesn’t hurt others, including her. She said they wouldn’t care. I said, tell your teachers. She said, they just say, don’t worry about it and go play somewhere else, so she stopped saying anything.

Is this how gender-based violence becomes familiar, when girls realise that they cannot state their right to not be insulted or injured and have it heard, thus changing boys’ behaviour? When there is impunity and lack of accountability about respect and safety in shared spaces, raising these realities gets read as advocating the feminisation of childhood, but something else is at stake when girls learn to stay silent and be more careful.

Zi wasn’t prepared to press her point or fight back, risking further rough play to defend her terms, so she experienced a moment of socialisation about silence, inability to change the conditions she experiences, and responsibility for her safety. Sound familiar? I began thinking about what she’d need to be able to state her fair needs and rights as a basis for autonomy, sovereignty and empowerment.

I thought about continued government failure to implement gender-based violence programmes in schools or preventative programmes in social life. Global literature will tell you that gender ideologies –  beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood, their roles, and their right to different forms and expressions of self and power – are at the heart of violence against women.

Other factors, whether interpersonal conflict, substance abuse, economic insecurity and infidelity, are triggers, and sometimes consequences, but not the cause.  A country that takes such violence seriously would systematically transform our gender ideologies, giving girls greater practice stating the terms of their relationships with others, and refusing verbal or physical violence and harm.

People think women are too empowered or have ‘too much equality’, but the numbers of applications for protection orders, the deaths from intimate partner violence, and rates of sexual violence against girls and women tells a different story.

Religious messages are those most pervasive and least likely to emphasise the legitimacy of women having full sovereign power over their own bodies, sexuality and reproduction. Pastoral care often reminds women of the sanctity of marriage to men, the need to respect husbands as authority figures, and the necessity of sacrifice for peace in the family.

Male violence is backed by surprisingly common ideas that women don’t have the right to decide when the relationship is done and should peacefully cooperate with practices of male culture and control.

Do girls have the right to state what they want and how they want to be treated, and to have that respected? Do they have the right to say no to insult or aggression? When do they get to practice the skills they need to stop any experiences of violence?

Neither state nor society takes preventative programmes seriously enough to stop violence against women. Seeing those moments of gender socialization that don’t help either stops all my public activism in its tracks and makes me wonder.