Teaching respect and patience to end sexual violence

Tuesday, March 29, 2011
By Patriot-News Op-Ed The Patriot-News
By Jenell Paris

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “It’s time to get involved.”

“Hey, Mommy, get me milkie!” my preschool son snarls across the table. I’ve just been out of my seat several times fetching jam, silverware and toast for the boy and his two brothers. They gobbled their food and wanted more before I could even take my first bite. I’ve lost my cool plenty of times in situations like this, but this morning I detached from the heat of the moment and looked at what was happening.

My son rightfully expects me to serve him, because at his young age, he needs plenty of help. But he crossed a line of respect, raising his voice and demanding service without a “please” or “thank you.” So focused on his own hunger, he failed to notice that I need to eat, too. Moments such as this happen in millions of households every morning. They pass by quickly and can easily be overlooked.

But our ordinary, everyday interactions are microcosms that relate to social issues of much greater consequence. He’s just a little boy asking for milk, of course, but I recognize a similar power dynamic in society, many times with dire consequences: a man disrespectfully demands, or takes, something from a woman without considering her needs or perspective. He thinks he deserves it, or maybe he just doesn’t think at all.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “It’s time to get involved.” According to the National Violence Against Women survey, 1 of 6 women and 1 of 33 men will experience attempted or completed rape at some point in their lives. Many others experience sexual violence or assault, and more still receive harassment or disregard that is directed at their sex or gender.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has declared April 5 the Day of Action; this year, people are encouraged to promote safety through their everyday behaviors. The NSVRC is calling attention to the ways bystanders, those who are neither victim nor perpetrator, can contribute to making their communities more safe.

I leave my breakfast table each day to go teach at a liberal arts college, and I notice gender relations there, too. I’m an anthropology professor, and when I teach about sexual violence in gender studies courses, the most common reply from men is, “Yeah, it’s terrible, but I never raped anyone.” They acknowledge the problem, but instead of moving toward it as activists who might influence other men, they try to gain as much personal distance as possible.

One semester, two representatives from the NSVRC came to my class as guest speakers, and they insisted that as members of society, we each have a vested interest in preserving healthy sexuality for everyone; we each have a role to play in our friendships, families, workplaces, schools, governments, and society.

It’s not as if sexual violence only affects some people — victims and perpetrators — and everyone else can live in the clear. Sexual violence also is embedded in institutions, cultural norms and policies. They showed a spectrum of violence that spans from disrespectful thoughts to demeaning language to full-blown violence such as assault and rape. Prevention also might be pictured as a spectrum, with opportunities for social change present in interpersonal relationships, organizations, government policies and most broadly, cultural values and norms.

What will you do this April, in your everyday life, to encourage safety for men and women? I resolve to bring the issue of sexual assault and prevention to my students, encouraging them to be peaceable in their thoughts and actions, and to be proactive in their spheres of influence. I also resolve to bring the issue to my breakfast table.

When my boys speak disrespectfully to me, I won’t do the same in return, confronting their blunders with a greater show of force. I’ll wait until I’m calm, and then talk to them about respect, considering the needs of others, and self-control. By insisting on respect for Mommy, even when they’re young, I hope they’ll grow into men who treat all women well.

My little one is 3, however, and only has so much stamina for discussion. And this morning he does want his milkie. Of course, it’s a huge leap from a dear little boy to a sexual predator or even just a run of the mill grown-up jerk, but that’s the point. Preventing sexual violence begins long before a perpetrator approaches a victim. It’s in ordinary interactions such as ours that men (and boys) and women (and girls) learn to insist on being treated with dignity, engage in healthy conflict and enjoy restored relationships.

So I offer him another chance. “Ask with respect, and I’ll get it for you. And after that, I’m not getting anything more until I finish my meal.” He does, and I do.

Jenell Paris is professor of anthropology at Messiah College. Her latest book is “The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are.”