Misogyny is Everywhere: Sexual Assault Awareness Month

            May is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Canada. Sexual assault, and sexual violence more broadly, is something that’s become increasingly prevalent in news stories and on social media. It’s not that sexual violence itself is increasing-- rates of sexual assault seem to have remained consistent for over ten years[1]-- it’s just that our awareness of these experiences have continued to evolve. Since #MeToo stories burst into the spotlight at the end of 2017, there has been increasing momentum to not only talk about experiences of sexual violence, but to understand why they are so common and hopefully put a stop to them.

no means no

            When I first began doing sexual violence prevention education, it was not uncommon for me to talk to a class full of students who couldn’t accurately define consent. On both high school and post secondary campuses, students had the vague sense that consent meant “giving permission”, but limited knowledge about our laws or what it could look or sound like in practice. In the five years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen rapid change in the technical knowledge about what consent requires. That is, people now understand that consent needs to be voluntary, informed, and (ideally) sober. What I haven’t seen is any decrease in experiences of sexual assault. Recent surveys on campuses across the province have confirmed what I’ve known anecdotally to be true-- that despite theoretical knowledge about consent, there are still high rates of sexual violence and assault[2].

            There seems to be a gap between the knowledge of consent and the practice of it. While we know that perpetrators can be of any age or gender, statistically they’re often young and male[3]. According to a meta review of available research by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), perpetrators of sexual assault often have a few other features in common: adherence to traditional gender roles, hostility towards women, and peer sexual aggression[4].

            For those of us who have worked in the Violence Against Women (VAW) sector, this is not surprising. The idea that misogyny contributes to sexual violence is not new. But still, there is a degree of discomfort when talking about misogyny as a contributing factor to sexual assault. There is this idea that I’ve heard spoken from countless audiences, which is that if men are also victims of sexual assault, then misogyny can’t be to blame.

            Here’s the thing about misogyny, though: it’s not just enacted by men. Misogyny is everywhere-- it’s in our media, our government, and often our homes. It’s not simply about hating women, it’s a socially reinforced value judgement to which none of us are immune. Misogyny values masculinity over femininity; masculine-coded skills such as logic and leadership are often seen as more important than the feminine-coded skills of emotional intelligence and teamwork. Men’s pleasure, comfort, and points of view are taken more seriously. Men’s reputations are worth more than women’s safety.

            It’s not that we do these things intentionally, but many of us implicitly favour masculinity (and therefore men) over that which is feminine. Misogyny isn’t just directed at women, but at trans folks, feminine men, and anyone who doesn’t conform to the “rules” of gender roles. Growing up surrounded by these unspoken values impacts our developing sexuality, and often becomes so ingrained that we hardly think to question it.

            For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to challenge you to dig a little deeper and ask yourself some questions:

  • Think about the ways in which you might be valuing masculinity in your every day life. Are you more impressed when someone says they’re a chef than a homemaker? Do doctors deserve to be paid significantly more than nurses? Is a stiff upper lip stronger than a cry? It’s not about a “right” answer, it’s about reflecting on why.
  • Do you (perhaps unintentionally) hold women and feminine people to a higher standard? If you hear a story about someone being the victim of a crime and you have that little niggle of “why would they be doing x in the first place?!”, what’s their gender or gender expression? When you find yourself wondering whether a manager/politician/parent/etc. is qualified for something, try to change their gender and see if the same criticisms apply. Traditional gender roles mean that women and femme folks have had to work incredibly hard to prove we’re “just as good” as men. But why should men be the standard against which we’re judged?
  • Look beyond the definition of consent and think about how you do consent with your partner(s), kid(s), friends, and colleagues. Think through the nuance of consent, even when it’s not about sex. Non-sexual contexts are where we first learned whether our body belongs to us, or whether it was more important to not hurt Grandma’s feelings. What messages were you given about access to your body, and how do those messages impact how you practice consent today?

illustration of finger pointing at woman

            Unlearning misogyny is hard work-- it can be messy, uncomfortable, and downright disconcerting. Be gentle with yourself if this is new to you or you realize you haven’t been thinking as critically about things as maybe you thought (I’ve definitely found myself in the latter category many times). We won’t be able to end sexual violence without first ending the behaviours that allow it to flourish. Those behaviours are expected, tolerated, normalized, and validated by the gendered assumptions that underpin so many of our thoughts. By doing the hard work of questioning those assumptions, we plant the seeds for change.

Allison Preyde is the Public Education Coordinator at Anova in London, ON. She has a Master’s degree in Philosophy from Western University, where her work focused on gender, epistemology, and applied feminist ethics. She has been working in violence prevention education for the last five years, and dreams of eventually working herself out of a job.