A new study published in a forthcoming issue of Gender & Society finds that girls and young women rarely report incidents of sexual violence because they view such incidents as "normal." These findings are at once supremely depressing and remarkably unsurprising.
The study, "Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse," analyzed forensic interviews conducted by the Children's Advocacy Center with 100 youths between the ages of three and seventeen who may have been sexually assaulted. It finds that "objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse appear to be part of the fabric of young women's lives." Furthermore, these things are so ingrained into young women's quotidian experiences that they didn't see them as particularly unacceptable or inappropriate:
Male power and privilege and female acquiescence were reified in descriptions of "routine" and "normal" sexualized interactions... Assaultive behaviors were often justified, especially when characterized as indiscriminate. For example, Patricia (age 13, white) told the interviewer: "They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it's okay, I mean... I never think it's a big thing because they do it to everyone." Referring to boys at school, Patricia described unwelcome touching and grabbing as normal, commonplace behaviors.
According to the research, it's also common for young women to trivialize their experiences of sexual harassment or assault; to see such behavior as just a part of regular masculinity (having internalized society's old favorite excuse, that "boys will be boys" garbage); and to define "real" assault according to incredibly narrow parameters and "various conditions that were rarely met," i.e., forcible stranger rape.
This is one of the reasons why sexual assault is so vastly under-reported: young women oftentimes don't recognize assault and harassment for what is is. Furthermore, they've internalized the sexist notion that men are naturally sexually predatory and women should thus be sexually withholding — the study concludes, "young women often held themselves and their peers responsible for acting as gatekeepers of men's behaviors; they were responsible for being coerced, for accepting gifts and other resources, for not fending off or resisting men's sexual advances..."
This is what we mean when we say that rape culture exists: it's not some kind of hysterical myth, nor is it "disempowering" to women to recognize the insidious ubiquity of internalized misogyny and victim-blaming. The banality of sexual assault is what makes it so oppressive.
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