The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.
– Bells, Adams, Griffith, Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice
Sexual violence is certainly not a new issue, especially on university campuses across the United States. As a young girl I was given rules for living and being in the world. There was acceptable attire to wear and particular friends to have. I had to be hyperaware of my surroundings at parties, never leave my drink unattended, never walk alone at night, and always have my keys in hand when going to my car. If I did these things, I would be safe, my personhood, my humanity, and my body would be free from harm—maybe.
I was taught that sexual violence against women is about individual action, crazy people, and promiscuous, unintelligent girls. It was never about a larger system of oppression. Then, I began hearing stories of sexual violence happening in my own family, and I realized these lessons not only created a false reality but also wouldn’t protect me at all.
As I hear more and more dialogue around sexual assault on college campuses and see students protest for change and action, I have to explore and discuss sexual violence as a social justice issue. When women experience sexual violence, they are taught that it is their fault because they didn’t follow the rules of society, resulting in not only physical trauma but also psychological trauma and shame. Men are given messages of superiority, entitlement, and that the worst thing to be in life is a woman. These lessons result in hypermasculinity, the “boys will be boys” mentality, and silence around sexual violence either perpetrated by men or experienced by them.
Combating sexual assault, especially on college campuses, has to be more than installing extra blue lights, providing alcohol awareness/consent training, and handing out rape whistles. Although these steps are an important part of creating a safe and knowledgeable community, to truly address and hopefully eradicate sexual violence on college campuses, we must address the root of this issue—oppression.
To address oppression, begin with self-reflection and an inward exploration of the lessons you were taught about gender roles, power, and control. Critically examine the images you have consumed over time and the messages you received from TV and magazines. What trends do you see in how women are portrayed? What about the men? What sort of message might these images suggest about each of their roles?
These all work to address issues of gender inequity and bring awareness and action to ending sexual violence and abuse. They’re just some of the ways to begin changing the cycle of oppression and socialization that leads to sexual violence and societal complacency.
As the conversation continues on a global scale, let us commit to bringing awareness in our communities, on our campuses, in our homes, with families, friends, and children.
The change begins with us!