Sexual Violence More than Just Rape


What do we mean when we speak of sexual violence? Does this term refer solely to the physical act of rape, or do we need to broaden our understanding of what it means to be sexually violated? For me, sexual violence refers to any action, on an individual or institutional basis, that forcibly seeks to compromise or curtail an individual's sexual health and independence. By paralleling sexual violence solely with rape, we run the risk of obscuring the numerous ways in which the sexual rights and freedoms of both women and men can be withheld or denied.

A useful phrase which highlights the depth of sexual violence defines rape as the "completed act of sexual violence forcefully performed against the will of another person." What works with this definition is that it places "rape" along a continuum of sexual violence. This definition expands traditional notions of sexual violence, taking account of the diverse ways in which violation occurs. It also leaves room for us to discuss the sexual commoditization of female bodies, often in ways that reinforce social and cultural messages about male domination and female submissiveness.

One of the key players in institutionalized sexual violence is the media, which typically portrays both men and women in sexually stereotyped roles, which are shaped by but also shape social values. In a controversial advertisement that was released earlier this year by fashion house Dolce & Gabbana, a partially naked man is shown holding down a scantily clad woman while a group of men stand by. The advertisement was pulled from the Spanish market following protest by feminist groups, but in response to the uproar fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana made the statement: "What does an artistic photo have to do with the real world?" In advertisements such as this one, which not only portray men as rapists, but perhaps more frighteningly women as willing acceptors of rape, this question becomes a very pressing one.

It has been said that art imitates life, so what is to be said of imagery that plays on the sexual violation of women, men and/or children? In societies in which a significant number of women and girls are raped and assaulted, do we have the luxury of putting out messages that reinforce an already strong culture of sexual violence?

In the Caribbean context, this dilemma is particularly evident in popular music forms. A Barbadian calypso a few years back spoke of the adult male's love for riding on the minivan and watching the schoolgirls bouncing up and down. Dancehall songs such as that by Jamaican artiste Spragga Benz often use sexually violent lyrics in his description of sex: "Cock it up, Jack it up, dig out the red…rev out the hole." An Amnesty report found that according to official reports 0.18 per cent of Jamaican women are sexually assaulted each year; and further estimates suggest that these official reports account for only 25% of all cases.

The media's use and manipulation of sexual violence therefore has everything to do with the real world. Although sexually violent images do not automatically lead to sexual violence, they do help to shape cultural values that teach us that it is okay to see women and men in these harmful ways. We become increasingly tolerant of violators and less sympathetic to those who have been violated.

In the highly publicized incarceration of Jamaican reggae singer Jah Cure – who was jailed in 1999 for the brutal rape of a young girl – artists, radio personalities and popular local figures came out in support of the artist with the cry of "Free Jah Cure". What was lost in the rhetoric was the story of the victim, while the man convicted of her assault has been elevated to the level of a wrongfully imprisoned political prisoner, with callers on call-in programs even drawing parallels between Jah Cure and Nelson Mandela.

What are the repercussions when we see the sexual violation of women and girls as "normal?" How does this compromise the sexual health of this significant section of our population? And in reverse, what messages are we teaching young men when we let them off the hook for being sexual aggressors all in the name of "culture?"

Sexual violence is a weapon. Our sexuality becomes a tool to be used against us. How can we even begin to talk about sexual and reproductive health in a culture in which sexually violent art is acceptable? One in which we still sing along and dance to explicit, degrading and violent music? One in which we fail to acknowledge that not only does art imitate life, but quite often, life also imitates art?

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