Sexual Violence: Changing Attitudes And Lives


Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett


Why do we teach men that it is their right to beat or sexually assault women and teach women that they should expect to be assaulted and/or beaten?

I find this belief in my classes regularly, yet we ignore this reality or blame victims. We understand as an island community that most rapes are committed by people we know, yet we do nothing to protect our children, apparently because so many of us view this as being normal. These are feelings shared in focus group conversations. Also, by teaching our children to be seen but not heard, especially our young women, we are damaging our entire social fabric, because they are taught that they are not worth listening to and should never speak up.

Meanwhile, there have been more sexual assaults on young women and girls on this island of 21 by seven miles, hailed as a paradise for tourists who seek sun, sea, sand and pleasure, but where residents cannot walk around their own communities for fear of being attacked. This is no existential fear, but a reality. Usually, we hear more about assaults against tourists, because these tend to make the news given their 'seriousness'. However, assaults are far more common than we discuss.

Sexual assaults, as pointed out regularly, are not about sex, or desire. They are, in fact, about power and control; and the need to demonstrate one's power over others. In many cases, they result from seriously imbalanced environments where violence lives in homes and communities and has been normalised. We often argue that all discussions must be data driven, and for this the work of the IDB and other agencies that gather and compile data is useful. According to a report on 'Crime and Violence in the Bahamas', Heather Sutton notes that:

"According to data provided by the RBPF, 29 per cent of rapes in 2013 were committed by acquaintances of the victim, three per cent by family members, and four per cent by current or former intimate partners."

Sutton also points out that many Bahamians consider violence against women and children as soft or less important. Though she underscores:

"Beyond being a violation of the fundamental human rights of women and children, early exposure to violence--whether children are victims of abuse themselves or witness violence against other family members--increases the chances of victims developing emotional problems, becoming aggressive, and perpetrating violence themselves." (Restoring Paradise in the Caribbean)

Numerous studies have highlighted these connections, yet citizens tend to dismiss these as fabrications. This is especially so of corporal punishment where the community believes that corporal punishment solves all problems and inflicts no scars. Sutton points out:

"The same study also found that many children were physically hurt as a result of discipline. Children were spanked in 77 per cent of homes where children were present and domestic violence was found in 23 per cent of homes. A correlation was found between homes where children were said to be 'spanked often' and domestic violence in the home. The 2011 Bahamas Secondary School Drug Prevalence Survey found that 43.8 per cent of all students surveyed self-reported having been emotionally or verbally abused in the past, 21.2 per cent had been physically abused, and nine per cent sexually abused. Female students were significantly more likely than male students to have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused."

Of course, cultural attitudes inform these behaviours. The way society defines male and female behaviour also determines how men and women are allowed to behave. So if a man sees a woman walking down the street and she looks good, it is his right, indeed his masculine privilege, to cross the street, stand in front of her and invade her space. She, as a woman, should feel pleased, happy and favoured that he has deemed to show her attention; she must succumb to his pressures regardless if she wishes to. Such is male power in a patriarchal paternalistic society. This also deepens already troubling attitudes that see 'subordinates' as less than and therefore open to violation and abuse.

Given these discussions, how do we continue to allow the same attitudes and behaviours to develop in our homes? It is interesting that in many of my classes so many young people know someone who has been a victim of sexual violence or have witnessed sexual violence first-hand. When we find that men understand that they 'deserve' to have any woman they want, whenever they want her, we also understand that parents are in part responsible for this thinking.

This parenting style is coupled with social norms that determine that a masculine man must behave as discussed, and indicates that such behaviour is normalised. Further, these behaviours are particularly prevalent in single-parent homes where mothers are primary or sole caregivers. There are multiple layers of gender discrimination and inequality visited on women, and encouraged by women. There tends to be a link between single-parent households and hypermasculinity. So, when young people articulate the kinds of statistics where young men find that many of their female peer group have been sexually assaulted or experienced forced or coerced sex, the reasons are obvious. Yet so many of their male peers expect this.

Data is essential to understanding these problems, but it must be connected to the stories and these stories demonstrate that these are not problems that will or can be resolved through policing. Meanwhile, government and other groups argue that increased policing is the answer to all society's ills. In fact, policing can worsen problems because there tends to be an increase in some kinds of violence and abuse.

A way forward

This past Saturday, Rotary had a mini conference on The Road to Peace, their initiative to eliminating violence and creating more harmonious societies. They brought in Ricardo Williams and Brent Decker of Cure Violence (Chicago) to work with this initiative. Cure Violence offers a more holistic, community-based way to not only fight crime and violence but to built stronger, more united and healthier communities. This beats out policing. Their message was fantastic. They bring great value to partnering with local organisations. When we as people touch other people, work with them and make them feel valued, we can truly change the way they see and appreciate themselves. They can understand that there are other choices to crime and violence.

As the conference demonstrated, this is an invaluable tool and can be an amazing locally integrated initiative. We not only tackle crime and violence, we rebuild lives that have been ignored, victimised, criminialised and socially-excluded, all of which promote the disease of violence. Perhaps by embracing this initiative and working to shift attitudes to gender and human equality we can make large steps towards reducing violence.


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