It is an indisputable fact. Sexual violence is ubiquitous.
I know sexual violence is ubiquitous because of the statistics. Decisive as they may be, however, the shortcoming of statistics is that they are impersonal. They inadvertently obscure the fact that the numbers represent real, living, breathing people in your life right now.
Look around you. Odds are you will see someone who has experienced sexual violence, whether you are at home, at school, or at work. There’s a good chance that you have experienced it, too. I know this because I have been told directly by friends, lovers, family and colleagues that they have experienced sexual violence. Humans — not numbers — experience it everyday.
The other fact, inadvertently obscured by the statistics is the fact that we are also surrounded by perpetrators of sexual violence. Yes, not all men are sexually violent, but many of them are. Yes, some women are too. Include whatever caveat you would like, but we must recognize that the perpetrators of sexual violence are all around us. They rarely hide in bushes. Friends, lovers, family and colleagues choose to be sexually violent everyday.
And yet the ubiquity of sexual violence is something that most men and many women rarely talk about. This is disingenuous, given the overwhelming prevalence of sexual violence. It is also disheartening. In the final analysis, it is the silence surrounding sexual violence that allows its ubiquity to persist. To reduce and, ideally, to eliminate the experience of sexual violence, all of us must recognize and discuss the fact of its existence frankly and on a regular basis.
When it comes to recognizing and discussing sexual violence, the distinction between the experience of sexual violence and the fact of sexual violence is, I think, important. We all have a duty to talk about the fact of sexual violence, but no person — woman or man — has a duty to talk about his or her experience of sexual violence. She (or he) may keep it secret, never disclose it to anyone, and never report it to the police, if she chooses. There are good reasons for someone who has experienced sexual violence to report it or seek professional counselling, but I won’t claim she has a duty to do it. One choice was taken from her violently. I won’t add insult to injury by trying to take another away from her rhetorically.
As ubiquitous as sexual violence may be, I am certain that the incidents of sexual violence can be reduced significantly. Dueling, smoking in bars, drunk driving, corporal punishment, these all once seemed like behaviors that could never be curtailed or eradicated, but we have reduced or eliminated these seemingly unchangeable behaviors and, in some cases, at an incredible pace. Sexual violence is a present-day fact, but there is a future in which it is a thing of the past.
The way forward doesn’t seem to me to be terribly complicated either. Effective education for our children and effective vigilance in our communities will be key. But for either of those goals to be achieved, all of us first need to admit, recognize and discuss the ubiquity of sexual violence. We can prepare our children and ourselves to solve a problem only if we first admit that it exists and that it affects us all.
Sexual violence isn’t a woman’s issue or a feminist issue. It’s a human issue. We must address it, if we are ever to live up to the full potential of our common humanity, because any society, in which sexual violence is ubiquitous, isn’t human at all.