The rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, is fresh in my mind. Two teenage boys sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl while the bystanders — the young men who witnessed the crime — not only didn’t stop the rape, they also shot footage and made fun of the victim. The lead prosecutor in the case said the perpetrators showed “absolutely no remorse for what happened to the victim” and that they “treated her like a toy.”
As a sexual violence prevention educator, my job is to help prevent the type of violence that happened in Ohio from happening here in our communities. This is not just a problem in Steubenville — it is a problem in Maine and across the United States.
One in five adult Maine residents report being the victim of rape or attempted rape during their lifetime, according to a report by the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. The number is reflective of the national average. The report also shows that the rate differs significantly by gender, with more than six times as many female victims as male. These statistics are even more jarring when you consider that many rapes go unreported.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with eighth-grade students about sexual violence. The students in my first class of the day were talkative and surprised to learn that sexual violence doesn’t have to be physical; it also includes sexual harassment. One boy thanked me for teaching them about the issue.
In the next class, there were a few boys who hung out in the back of the room. One of them challenged some of my examples of sexual violence, which sparked a class debate. Respectful debate is an important learning tool, and I was pleased with the outcome as most of the students seemed to understand my message and agree that sexual violence can take many forms.
Still, I wondered about the boys in the back row. What other messages had they been hearing? Where had the messages come from? Were they the same messages heard by those teenage boys in Ohio?
We live in a culture that objectifies girls and women, silences victims of sexual violence, and teaches young men that masculinity means showing no emotion. We live in a culture that blames victims, predominantly women, and often creates a hostile atmosphere for men who want to speak out on behalf of victims.
When a woman is sexually assaulted, she cannot be sure that the community will support her. Instead she may hear that she should have dressed differently, that she shouldn’t have been walking in a certain part of town, that she in some way asked for it. When a man shows tenderness and empathy, he cannot be sure that he will be respected for those traits; instead he may hear that his sensitivity is a weakness, that he is somehow not a real man.
These are the messages our children are growing up with. These are the messages that might have made it easier for the boys in Ohio to show “no remorse” and treat their victim “like a toy.”
Despite the seemingly overwhelming negative messages that foster a culture of sexual violence, we do have the power to implement change. Early education is critical, and I am proud of the work my fellow sexual violence educators and I do in schools, but I am the only such male educator in the state. As a society, we all need to work together, both men and women, to prevent sexual violence.
I challenge more men in particular to act as positive role models. I challenge more men to stop victim blaming and to hold each other accountable. I challenge both men and women to stand against gender stereotypes. I challenge both men and women to speak out, because silence condones sexual violence. I do this because sexual violence is not a woman’s issue — it is a cultural issue that affects us all. Together we can make a difference.
Sean O’Connell has been an educator for the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center, serving Kennebec and Somerset counties, since 2009. He can be reached at email@example.com. This is one of many OpEds to address the issue of sexual violence during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.