Editor’s note: This story includes descriptions of sexual abuse. A list of sexual assault reporting options and on-campus resources can be found on the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross websites.
In the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard in the U.K., I had several conversations with friends regarding sexual assault and predatory behavior. Conversations with girlfriends usually consisted of sentiments of solidarity and relatability, while most conversations with guy friends usually ended with them appalled or completely bewildered at what they’ve heard. Thankfully, I haven’t had many conversations with men who dismiss or disregard any women’s experiences with sexual assault or harassment, but I have noticed that many men are completely unaware of the lifestyle their female friends are forced to lead, the precautions they must take and the fear they survive through on a daily basis. Considering the prevalence of women in our society and the grave statistics regarding sexual assault against women, I am always left with one question after these conversations: How do you not know?
Most people understand that sexual assault and harassment for both men and women exists at a monstrously high rate, but many don’t comprehend the severity of what these statistics mean. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), one out of every six American women has experienced rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, meaning in a room of six women, at least one of them — if not more — have been sexually assaulted. And according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), approximately 19.2 million women experience sexual coercion in their lifetime, and approximately 81.3% of female rape victims reported that their first completed or attempted rape occurred before the age of 25.
Key word: First.
Despite such obscene statistics, the traumas women face are viewed less as tragic incidents and instead feel and look like normal, everyday occurrences. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, so the conversations between women regarding sexual harassment are unfortunately less about if something were to happen to someone and more about when.
Considering the prevalence of sexual assault and the relatability plenty of women feel when discussing the topic amongst each other, it confuses me how many people, especially men, do not recognize what is happening to their friends and family members. Guy friends will ask me, “Do you really feel scared to go out at night?” not trying to be condescending, but simply oblivious to the fears and realities women have to face. I initially respond with a tiresome and frustrated “Yes,” because not only are men less likely to express they are afraid to walk home at night — they are oblivious to the millions of women who are. Maybe it is part of a woman’s intuition, but I can’t help but notice the discomfort in a woman’s eyes when they are trying to wiggle themselves out of a conversation with someone who is a little too touchy and comfortable. I can’t help but notice the increase in the speed of pace as a group of girls walks down the street at night. There is a certain tension in the room when sexual assault is discussed, not simply because it is a sensitive subject, but because I know for several in the room, it is a subject they personally know way too well.
While I am dumbfounded at the lack of awareness of this issue, I can’t help but notice certain actions and comments men do and make that suggest they do understand the severity of what is happening to the women in their lives. Fathers are overprotective of their daughters because they fear the predatory advances grown men might make on their children. Parents tell children to “cover up” when male family members visit to prohibit the opportunity for their daughters to be sexualized in their own homes. Young girls are told they are acting or dressing “too grown” when they ask for different hair styles or short-sleeved shirts because parents are aware of what might entice child predators. Girls are dress-coded in school for wearing shorts in the summer to protect the eyes of young boys. While girls receive these punishments and constant reminders that life in their skin is an open invitation to violence unless they protect themselves, young boys are simply taught and encouraged to indulge in their desires. Unless a guy takes the time to converse with a woman who has suffered from the sexual violence of men, men never understand the consequences of being a woman and the cycle of inadvertent and completely useless protection from predators — by telling women to cover up and not stay out too late — repeats itself.
The unfortunate ideology by which we as individuals don’t hold the same weight for social issues that aren’t directly happening to us prohibits us from challenging and eradicating any social issue. Our proximity to the issue shouldn’t make it any more or less important, and considering how prevalent sexual assault is in our society, I guarantee everyone knows someone personally who has been affected by sexual violence. Though we shouldn’t care how close we are to the topic, everyone we know is personally or indirectly affected by it.
Girls aren’t speed-walking to their cars at night, holding their keys between their fingers, to be obnoxiously cautious. Girls don’t ask you to walk them home with pleading eyes because they’re trying to get you to come upstairs with them. Girls aren’t refusing to go to an event because that one creepy guy is going to be there to be an annoying party pooper. Girls aren’t always mean and angry towards men who make them feel uncomfortable because they’re “too nice.” We do these things because we are terrified of the reality of our experience, as women in a world with predatory men. We are terrified of the consequences our sisters and best friends have experienced, and we are terrified of re-experiencing the consequences we already have experienced. Sexual assault and harassment isn’t always a violent attack and isn’t something that a handful of humans endure; it is an unfortunately normalized phenomenon that everyone needs to be talking about.
Sydni Brooks is a junior at Notre Dame Studying English and Gender Studies. She is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and calls Flaherty Hall home on campus. With equal passions for writing and helping others, she hopes to serve her community well in her future. She can be reached at [email protected] or @sydnimaree22 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.