Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why we need to talk about sexual assault

by Molly Borowitz

South Africa's Medical Research Council has just published a study about the prevalence of rape which found that roughly 1 in 4 South African men has probably raped a woman. The study surveyed 1,738 men, 25% of whom admitted to having committed rape in their lifetimes, and 5% of whom confessed that they had done so within the past twelve months. Even more disturbingly, 73% of the respondents who reported positively for rape said that they had committed their first assault before the age of 20, while fully half admitted to raping multiple women -- which means that 18.25% of South African men have raped a woman before their 20th birthday, while 12.5% have raped more than one woman. In addition, 3% of those surveyed admitted to coercing another man or boy into sex, while 10% said that they themselves had been raped by another man.

Study coordinator Rachel Jewkes, a professor at the Medical Research Council, told the BBC that she found the results "very shocking," but she also explained that she attributed rape's disturbingly high prevalence in South Africa to specific cultural factors, namely the nation's "incredibly disturbed past and the way that South African men over the centuries have been socialised into forms of masculinity that are predicated on the idea of being strong and tough and the use of force to assert dominance and control over women, as well as other men." Indeed, some of the survey respondents explained that practices like gang rape can function as exercises in male bonding.

This incredibly disturbing news reminds us that sexual assault remains one of the greatest challenges facing women (and men) across the globe. Jewkes insists that sociocultural change is absolutely imperative: "We have to change the underlying social attitudes that in a way have created a norm that coercing women into sex is on some level acceptable." We are lucky to have incredible organizations like SHARE and SpeakOut that promote campus-wide conversations to inform our community about the dangers of sexual assault. But even in the face of these frightening statistics, we can't forget that sexual assault is a very personal experience, one that we cannot and should not distinguish from the people who have lived through it. If you know a survivor, give her (or him) a hug today.

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