I took my first self-defense class when I was 15. I technically did it to fulfill a PE requirement (I didn’t want to have to climb a rope for an A), but I also felt the strong need to learn how to fight off someone who might attack me. I was at the age where I started getting catcalls whenever I was in my school uniform, and older men would approach my friends and me whenever we went out to trendy L.A. dinners. But the first lesson, which happened to be the most poignant, I was taught on my first day of class had nothing to do with me. I was taught that sexual assault is all about power, not sex. I remember feeling caught off guard by that statement and couldn’t help but think for the rest of semester Why does no one ever talk about that?
Ten years later, and I’m still asking the same question. I recently read actress Mayim Bialik’s opinion piece “Being a Feminist in Harvey Weinstein’s World” in The New York Times. “As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms,” wrote Bialik. ”Those of us in Hollywood who don’t represent an impossible standard of beauty have the ‘luxury’ of being overlooked and, in many cases, ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.”
This quote, and the entire piece, just didn’t sit right with me. Instead of getting to the root cause of why this keeps happening, it highlighted the real problem with how everyone talks and deal with sexual assault: We relate it solely to sex when it needs to be treated as a crime.
“Dressing in a certain way or looking a certain way doesn’t invite [sexual assault]. When looking at the statistics on sexual violence, we have found that it cuts across age, ethnicity, profession, every other demographic,” says Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Chicago. “Depending on the surveys you look at, one in four women report some sort of sexual victimization in their lifetime. It’s not just the supermodels of the world, it really cuts across industry and all of those other demographics.”
The numbers don't lie; sexual assault happens across all communities. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest Network (RAIN), 28% of sexual assault victims are between the ages of 35 and 64 and one out of six women will have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. One out of 10 men are rape victims, and 21% percent of transgender college students have been sexually assaulted—and these are just a few examples. There is not a "standard look" for an assault victim.
So where did this misconception about come from? And why can we still not dissociate one’s looks from sexual assault? How we deal with sex, in general, is a confusing contradiction that seems to perpetuate it. “In our society sex, is often associated with attractiveness,” says Elizabeth Jeglic, professor of psychology at John Jay College, City University of New York. “Research shows that we are genetically programmed to choose attractive partners as we perceive them to be healthier and have a higher ability to reproduce.” Jeglic also defines sexual assault as the unwanted physical and verbal behavior of a sexual nature; it’s natural and obvious that we would attach sex to it.
Psychologically, to some extent, those types of myths help us, when we feel vulnerable.
“Yes, studies show that attractive women are more likely to advance and more likely to be paid more,” agrees Raja. “Yet, we somehow see attractive women as sexually available. Historically, men have sort of felt like, well, maybe women are actually interested [in sex] but they’re just saying no because they’re supposed to say no. We need to create a culture where women can be open and free about wanting to have sex or not wanting to have sex. Until we can truly communicate openly about sex and sexuality, then we are going to continue to have this idea that Oh, women say no when they really mean yes.”
Society controlling women’s sexuality is something that is deeply rooted in history. It's this impossible standard set for women in movies, TV shows, music, and in everyday life: We are expected to walk this really fine line of looking and being desirable without looking and being overly sexual.
“Women are in this difficult position where either they’re supposed to be attractive or they’re supposed to be these matrons taking care of the home not really interested in being attractive,” Raja says. “In our culture, you’re supposed to be one way and then you totally make a switch when you’re married. We’re only now starting to see people having more freedom in those roles, the rest of the culture has to catch up to the fact that women should be able to express themselves in whatever way they feel fits for them as individuals.”
A stereotype for a sexual assault victim was created because we pick and choose who deserves our sympathy. Look at the way sexual assault is reported: The stories that get shared across Twitter are the ones about a young successful woman, oftentimes from a well-to-do background, but by societal normal standards of beauty, she fits the bill. Why does the Harvey Weinstein case get more coverage over the allegations against R. Kelly? We don't look at the men committing the crimes—we look at what victims look like and then pick a side.
What makes it worse is that there’s a strange comfort in the misconception we created. “Psychologically, to some extent, those types of myths help us, when we feel really vulnerable,” Raja says. ”It helps us feel like, ‘Oh okay, this is why this could never happen to me. This way, if I just do this, then I won’t be victimized. If I just dress in a certain way, if I just avoid a certain area of town, or if I just don’t socialize with people unless I know them really well, or whatever.’ We sort of try to make up these rules to protect ourselves as a society.”
But there are various reasons why someone would sexually assault someone. She says the reasons can range from someone blaming women for their social ineptness to the desire to humiliate. But all of them are rooted in desiring to dominate someone they see as weaker or lesser than them. According to a study done by psychiatrists Gurvinder Kalra and Dinesh Bhugra, those who commit sexual assault don't necessarily find the act sexually gratifying. They use tactics such as sexual manipulation, coercion, threats, and abuse to gain power and control over their victims. It all stems from how society constructs the social expression of male power and patriarchy. Perpetrators aren’t purely motivated because one finds the other person attractive.
If recent events aren’t proof enough of this, these misconceptions only do more harm than good. No woman should have to think twice about what she’s going to wear or wonder if her makeup is too sexy. We need to change the discussion from how women can prevent sexual assault to how can we teach men not to assault women.
“Men have to say something because men are doing this,” said Wesley Morris on the podcast Still Processing, when discussing Weinstein to his co-host Jenna Wortham. “Women didn’t invent sexual harassment. Men have to talk to men and let them know it’s not cool.”
“The best violence prevention strategy is to teach perpetrators not to assault or harass somebody else,” says Raja. “They’re the ones who are responsible."
So I’m going to continue to work out to get toned and wear a smoky eye I deem sexy when I go out. Because as Cate Blanchett so poetically put it, “Just because I want to look sexy doesn’t mean I want to fuck someone."
Maestripieri D, Henry A, Nickels N. Explaining financial and prosocial biases in favor of attractive people: Interdisciplinary perspectives from economics, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology. Behav Brain Sci. 2017;40:e19. doi:10.1017/S0140525X16000340
Kalra G, Bhugra D. Sexual violence against women: understanding cross-cultural intersections. Indian J Psychiatry. 2013;55(3):244‐249. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.117139