To stop sexual assault and violence, the culture it lives in must change first, panelists said during a discussion Tuesday night.
Five panelists presented “Moving Beyond No Means NO!: A Panel Discussion About Sexual Assault and Prevention” at the Monroe County Public Library. They came from IU, Middle Way House and Breakthrough, an international nonprofit organization that works to end violence against women.
The panelists discussed how their organizations work with sexual assault prevention and covered a range of issues, from the lack of autonomy adolescents have of their own bodies to the role sexual violence plays in American culture.
“Sexual assault is already part of the culture, so someone should address it culturally,” said Joe Samalin, who works with Breakthrough.
We live within rape culture, Samalin said, but many people believe it’s a separate culture of which they aren’t a part. In order to eradicate it, the culture itself must change.
By disrupting harmful norms, it’s easier to call attention to them. Samalin used the example of looking at sex as a competition. If this norm transformed or shifted, that type of behavior will become unacceptable, and the people who perpetuate the behavior will stand out more. Then it will be more apparent that those norms aren’t okay.
But altering everyday norms isn’t so easy. Rape culture can’t be stopped tomorrow, Samalin said, but it’s possible to do work on an individual basis.
“You don’t need a Ph.D. in gender studies . . . to get a critical lens on your culture,” he said, adding anyone can catalyze change with a bit of guidance, training and tools.
Accountability is a huge factor in changing the culture, said Jennifer Burch, a crisis intervention service coordinator for Middle Way House. When doing community outreach, she said Middle Way focuses on the fact that perpetration is a choice.
“We’re all capable of being perpetrators, and we’re all capable of being survivors,” she said. “We have to be held accountable.”
In order to prevent violence, it’s important to think about one’s desires, needs and boundaries — but also about what one’s partner wants and feels comfortable with.
“What do I do if I’ve perpetrated?” Burch asked. “What if my partner has perpetrated against me?”
These conversations may seem advanced for kids, but Burch and Katelyn Lipa, another panelist who also works as a crisis intervention service coordinator at Middle Way, still give educational talks at schools to get kids and young adults thinking about sexual violence.
Burch said they do work at schools and community centers in three counties including Monroe. At schools, they talk to seventh- and 10th-grade classes about healthy boundaries, how relationships are modeled in society and how they see gender constructions. This way, they are working to tackle issues early, as kids are just starting to question themselves and how they interact with others.
The “silver lining piece” of norms is the fact that we create them and we can change them, Somalin said. They’re simply ideas, and if we look critically at the practices that contribute to those norms, we can knock them down and create a healthier society.