For Young Women, Sexual Violence Is The New Normal

CREDIT: Chase Carter via Flickr Creative Commons

Most young women assume that being harassed, assaulted, and abused is simply something that everyone experiences, according to the results from a forthcoming study that will be published in the next issue of the journal Gender & Society. The perception that gender-based violence is normal dissuades most victims from reporting those crimes.

In order to arrive at those conclusions, sociologist Heather Hlavka analyzed interviews conducted with 100 young women between the ages of three and seventeen years old. The interview subjects had been identified as potential sexual assault victims through an advocacy group that works to combat child abuse. Hlavka discovered that most of those girls rationalized their everyday experiences of abuse and harassment, simply believing there was nothing unusual about being victimized.

“Objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives. They had few available safe spaces; girls were harassed and assaulted at parties, in school, on the playground, on buses, and in cars,” Hlavka writes. “Overwhelmingly described as ‘normal stuff’ that ‘guys do’ or tolerating what ‘just happens,’ young women’s sexual desire and consent are largely absent. Sex was understood as something done to them.”

In other words, these young women tend to believe that men can’t help it. They’ve been taught that men can’t control their aggressive sex drives, so it makes sense to them that girls will inevitably become the subject of that aggression. That’s a central aspect of rape culture, and Hlavka argues it’s been deeply socialized into young women. Most of the study participants didn’t understand that there was any other way for men and women to interact.

These attitudes are so firmly ingrained that women aren’t necessarily supportive of other victims, according to Hlavka. She found that young women avoid reporting sexual violence because they’re too afraid they’ll be labeled as a “whore” or “slut,” or accused of lying. They’re worried about this reaction from authority figures, who they assume will blame them for provoking the assault, but they’re also worried about the same backlash from their peers.

It’s not hard to see examples of Hlavka’s findings playing out in the public. When young girls come forward to report incidences of assault and abuse, they are quickly labeled as liars and sluts. Their character is usually called into question, their stories typically aren’t trusted, and sometimes their entire communities turn against them. The backlash can be so intense that it occasionally drives rape victims to take their own lives.

The new study echoes previous research that has confirmed unhealthy attitudes about sexuality tend to take root at a young age, contributing to an adult society in which men often simply feel entitled to women’s bodies. Most adolescents grow up without learning anything about rape or consent. Many rapists report that they don’t believe they actually did anything wrong.

Hlavka concludes that Americans have some serious work to do to shift the status quo in this area. “Alternative solutions for the education of young people on sexual relations and abuse are long overdue,” she writes. “The lack of safe, supportive space for girls is palpable. We can thus better understand why young women in this study felt they were expected to protect themselves from everyday violence with little help from others, including those in authority positions. The lack of institutional support assumed by girls in this study should be deeply concerning for educators and policy makers.”