The Problem with “Violence Against Women”
“It is not enough for men to do nothing. We are complicit when we do nothing within the context of an overwhelming culture of violent masculinity.”
Contributing author: Fatima M. Smith, MSW
Editors: Ryan E. Morris, MSW & Rachel J. Solomon
Terms like “violence against women” and the myth that men cannot experience sexual assault do a disservice to the mission of eradicating sexual assault in our communities. Services provided for survivors, like those at the YWCA of Richmond and the VCU Wellness Center, are available to anyone, regardless of sex or gender identity. Shouldn’t attitudes of support and the concept of advocacy extend to both women and men? The sad and often unaddressed truth is that sexual assault affects everyone, regardless of gender.
Although statistics generally depict incidents when women are the survivors or victims of sexual assault, men do experience sexual assault from both male and female perpetrators. The misconception that labels women as victims and men as perpetrators may stem from the findings that male survivors are less likely than females to report sexual assault, already one of the most underreported crimes in our country.
- Almost 50 percent of bisexual women experience rape in their lifetimes.
- One in eight gay women and one in six heterosexual women experience rape in her lifetime.
- Almost 50 percent of gay and heterosexual women and nearly 75 percent of bisexual women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes.
- Almost 50 percent of bisexual men and 40 percent of gay men experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.
- One in six heterosexual men experiences sexual violence in his lifetime.
- 50 percent of transgender people have experienced sexual violence.
If men experience sexual assault at similar rates to women, how can we engage men as advocates and provide support to male (and female) survivors?
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with men who are advocates against sexual violence in the Greater Richmond area. These men are involved with the Regional Hospital Accompaniment Response Team (R-HART), a 24-hour crisis response program pairing an on-call, trained volunteer hospital advocate with a survivor of sexual assault or intimate partner violence in the emergency room who has requested support. Through these interviews, I learned a bit more about what male advocates both gained and hoped to provide from their R-HART volunteer service.
“It has been an eye-opening experience in some ways and hopefully made me a better advocate in the work I do,” Dominic Barrett, an R-HART volunteer since 2011, explained.
Barrett said his volunteerism as a hospital advocate makes him “better able to dispel the myths and misconceptions of domestic violence and sexual assault in [his] daily life.”
Barrett knew of the challenges faced by survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence in our community, and of local resources for survivors, like the YWCA of Richmond’s Sexual Assault programming. He did not realize, however, that opportunities were available for men like him to interact with and support survivors.
“Without the services like those of the YWCA, survivors can often feel isolated and unsupported, so I was simply looking for a way to support organizations that supported survivors of domestic and sexual assault,” Barrett said.
Reed Bohn became involved in R-HART more than two years ago through Safe Harbor, a domestic and sexual violence agency primarily serving Henrico County, because he wanted direct client interaction. Bohn said he is amazed by this opportunity to serve a diverse group of survivors in Richmond.
“Every call is different, which keeps me engaged,” Bohn said.
Chatman Clark began his R-HART experience six months ago because, as a physician, he felt it was essential for him to know how to care for people in this context.
“[I] never learned more from any experience,” Clark said of his interactions with survivors in crisis as a hospital advocate.
Sexual assault is a community issue. Involving men in the movement against sexual assault is the first of many steps to eradicate sexual violence. Studies reveal that only about six percent of men commit the majority of collegiate sexual assaults, meaning 94 percent of men are not perpetrators of campus assault. Unfortunately, mass media and societal norms paint a different picture of both perpetrators and survivors of sexual assault.
“It is not enough for men to do nothing,” Barrett said. “ We are complicit when we do nothing within the context of an overwhelming culture of violent masculinity.”
These men are providing a powerful example of what their gender can do to combat sexual assault. However, they also show male survivors that this isn’t a men’s issue or a women’s issue – sexual assault is a people’s issue.
Through volunteering, men like Barrett, Bohn and Clark model that it is okay to speak about sexual violence. Seeing men as supportive advocates may also encourage male survivors to speak about their own traumatic experiences with sexual assault.
Men can be allies for survivors and advocates against sexual assault:
- Volunteer with a domestic & sexual violence agency.
- Interrupt behavior that perpetuates violence in our communities. (The YWCA offers free Bystander Intervention training by request. Click here to learn more).
- Start by Believing survivors of sexual assault
Volunteering does not require professional experience or a specific educational background. Instead, volunteers need simply to have passion for the cause and a willingness to learn.
“There are places and opportunities where men can and should be a part of this kind of work,” Barrett said.
One supportive interaction with a survivor can create valuable impact.
“[I] “do what I can for each survivor, one at a time,” Clark said.
Bohn sees his role in R-HART as an opportunity to create hope.
“[I] empower survivors to access services, create change, and walk away from an R-HART experience feeling supported and prepared for next steps,” Bohn said.
“[I hope] to play a small role in supporting survivors in extremely difficult times and to be an advocate when needed,” Barrett said.“… to help support the self-advocacy of survivors when that is more needed and appropriate.”
So, when will you take the step to be an advocate and ally?
Fatima M. Smith is the Director of Community Outreach & Public Education / Regional Hospital Accompaniment Response Team (R-HART) Coordinator at the YWCA of Richmond. She is a graduate of George Mason University where she received a Bachelor of Science in Administration of Justice and went on to receive her Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she currently teaches a “Violence Against Women” course (although advocates for male survivors of violence, as well!)