Commentary  Sexual assault’s silencing power

A barrier of enforced silence surrounds sexual assault survivors in our society. Ninety-one per cent of sexual assaults in Canada go unreported, according to Statistics Canada. This is partially because the conventional understanding of sexual assault pressures survivors into staying silent.

Society sends us a single idea of what rape is: an attacker, a stranger, male, aggressive, forcing himself on a woman. While this is one version of sexual assault, it doesn’t account for survivors’ varied experiences.

In fact, a high percentage of sexual assault cases involve someone the survivor knows. Thirty-one per cent of cases reported in 2007 were committed by a family member of the survivor; over half of reported assaults in 2004 were perpetrated by someone otherwise known to the survivor. This intimate connection to an aggressor often silences people who have been assaulted. As students, we’re closely connected to the people around us, entangled as we are in dense social networks with the people we live and work and study with. It can seem like you have a lot to lose by speaking out against someone close to you.

This pressure to keep quiet is aggravated by existing structures of power in society – the way that social norms give men power over women pushes survivors to explain away what they’ve experienced, or even blame themselves for it. From Cosmo to Gossip Girl, we’re told that it’s normal for a man to be sexually aggressive and it’s a woman’s role to be sexually accommodating. Even though these media pretend to empower women, they disempower them by recycling the old message that it’s their job to be attractive, available, and submissive to men.

Further, the image of rape we’re used to is heteronormative – it ignores the existence of other sexualities and is shaped by traditional gender roles. Such conventional wisdom makes it harder to recognize cases of same-sex assault or assault committed by women against men, as sexual assault. Society also stigmatizes male survivors of sexual assault, delegitimizing their feelings, telling them that because they’re male, they should enjoy all sex.

If anything said here resonates with things you’ve experienced, we hope you’ll feel encouraged to talk about it. If you feel you’ve been assaulted, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Whatever your situation, your experience is valid, and there are groups whose mission is to hear you out and point you to further resources.

To get in touch with the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), you can call 514-398-8500 or go to their web site for more information. The SACOMSS office is located in room B-27 of the Shatner building.