How we can all change the narrative
around violence against women

Women throughout history have often been blamed for the seduction of men. But why, in this day and age, are we still hearing that women are ‘asking for it’, asks clinical psychologist and Relationships Australia NSW CEO Elisabeth Shaw.


Too often, our news feeds are dominated by yet another story of violence or abuse against women. Afterwards, almost without fail, there’ll be public a discussion of how women need to keep themselves safe, while acknowledging how unfair it is that women must be so vigilant about their wellbeing.

In these conversations, both women and men can be all too ready to divide responsibility between victim and perpetrator. This is driven by the difficulty of knowing how to stop men who are violent. It can be easier to ‘police’ the behaviour of victims, creating an illusion of control, even if it has no real bearing on the crimes committed.


The myth of ‘revealing clothing’

Every fashion has brought with it the possibility that women will use their feminine wiles to draw attention, and as a result may ‘deserve what they get’. While in the 19th century this could be a seductive display of an ankle or elbow, today it might be wearing a crop or bra top to a club.

Even more worrying is the idea that women are purposely using their sexuality to ‘bring a good man down’, in terms of career and social standing. This narrative is more concerning when it’s combined with the view that men’s urges for sex can be overwhelming or out of their control.


Someone’s clothing is not a label or invitation

Today, we are still hearing that women are ‘asking for it’ and ‘men can’t help it’ or ‘men are confused’. This narrative is also used by women against other women, as well as being used as a justification by men who go on to sexually assault or harass women.

Some facts are important here:

  • Most sexual assaults and incidents of domestic violence are perpetrated by someone known to the victim
  • Most sexual assaults are not sexually motivated. Dominance and power drive assault, not desire
  • Sexual assault is enabled by dehumanisation and objectification, not by seduction and longing
  • Sexual assault can happen throughout the lifespan and regardless of appearance or clothing. Proximity, vulnerability and opportunity are far more likely factors

Clothing has nothing to do with sexual assault and women can feel strong, proud and empowered through their clothing choices. They should not be treated as if they have ‘likely victim’ stamped on them depending on their outfit.


How society can change the narrative of ‘she was asking for it’

It is easy to shy from misguided opinions about drunkenness, what victims wore, the false notion that ‘boys will be boys’ and so on. However, as parents, family members, teachers and friends, we can — and should — discuss and influence collective consciousness about difficult subjects such as sexual abuse, harassment and violence.

This will be how, as a community, we can move forward. Silencing people only fuels resentment and pushes hatred underground, which is then likely to pop up in unlikely places.


How to have difficult conversations

Here are some options for navigating these challenging conversations.

Talking to others

  • Lean in. While some views may be opposed to yours, being curious and asking questions can open up mutually beneficial discussions.
  • Ask questions. The nasty or unsympathetic view could be covering up fears and concerns that can be discussed.
  • Own our own histories. Our views are shaped by our own experiences of abuse and suffering — or lack thereof. Sensitively asking about significant experiences or people that shaped their thinking can open conversations up and lead to new understandings.
  • Sit with the discomfort. This is uncomfortable material. The desire for it to ‘just go away’ can lead to suggestions such as ‘just stop drinking’ or ‘cover up’, as if that solves the problem. Some people are just too afraid and overwhelmed to do anything.
  • Remember that most women and some men will have their own assault histories. This is not something that happens to others, but is likely to have happened to someone you know. Take care of what you say and who you are speaking to.

Your own self-talk

You might be stumped and resentful about what is being discussed. Some ways to change your mindset include:

  • Practise self-awareness. What are your gut reactions based on? If you just can’t understand, do you have the curiosity to find out?
  • Have compassion – for yourself and others. If you think and wish the best for yourself and others, the conversation will usually flow better.
  • Manage ignorance. It’s OK not to know. Rather than say the wrong or hurtful thing, better to say “I am still listening, digesting and trying to make sense of it all” than be called to declare your position, only to find you have put your foot in it.
  • Stretch yourself. Read widely. Push yourself to entertain different perspectives, even if you don’t agree.
  • Be accountable. If you have come to understand or have always known that your past behaviour was not acceptable, then now is the time to look at this head-on and make some decisions about what to do next, whether that might be change future behaviour, seek help, apologise or admit to a crime.

Difficult conversations and negotiating conflict are part of any relationship worth having, but they need to be carefully navigated. We all have an important role in influencing how we collectively advance, through speaking up and taking action within our own households and social groups.

We can do this by talking to our children about what’s happening, and being open to their views and experiences. We can introduce them to alternative perspectives. We can engage positively in our schools, workplaces and communities.

That said, the magnitude of change required can still seem overwhelming. But we have to manage feelings of helplessness, as they can too easily morph into anger and intolerance. Taking time out and keeping ourselves calm, kind, and poised for constructive action is key.


Relationships Australia NSW offers specialist counselling services for those who have been affected by sexual assault or domestic violence. Get in touch with us today. This post originally appeared on Body & Soul and has been republished here with permission.


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