ALICIA WALLACE: We cannot end sexual violence until we understand the issues


Alicia Wallace

During the month of April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I participated in numerous events including panels and group discussions about sexual violence against women and girls. In most of these conversations, the questions posed made the knowledge gap clear. There is confusion about the age of consent, uncertainty about available healthcare services and resources available to survivors, and, still, the tendency to victim-blame.

The questions and comments made it clear that, while sexual violence is a term everyone seems to understand on a very basic level, there is a lack of knowledge about sexual violence as a spectrum, its impact on survivors, and the work that needs to be done to end it.

In recent months, I have been encouraging people participating in conversations about sexual and reproductive health and rights to consider the relationship between societal attitudes toward sex and sexuality and the proliferation of sexual violence in The Bahamas. We will not be able to end sexual violence without changing the way we talk about gender, sexuality, and sex.

Gender, different from sex, refers to the socially constructed characteristics based on sex (organs). They way we interact with each other — based on the genders we are assigned — and the way we assign rights and responsibilities are known as gender relations. They are impacted by other factors including religion and complicated by other identity markers such as race, class, sexuality, and nationality. Sexuality refers to sexual thoughts, feelings, attraction, and behavior.

Gender relations are all around us, making its presence known in the home, at work, in social activities, and in the law. Who takes care of the children, and why? Who works at the front desk, who leads the client meetings, and who works overtime? Why? Who plans social events, who has to leave first, and why? Whose ability to pass on citizenship is limited? Why?

Gender relations are real-life effects of our beliefs about each other based on the rules we have learned and continue to cling to about gender. They are directly related to the conditions we live within, including the high rate of sexual violence. Many people believe women and men are opposites, or that women and men “complement” each other. They have very different assignments that rarely, if ever, intersect. In The Bahamas, common gender ideologies include the classification of women as objects and prey, naturally skilled and inclined to nurture others, and expected to marry and submit to men. Given the belief that women and men are opposites or complementary, this must mean that men are predators, meant to possess women, have natural dominance, and are to be in charge of women.

Objectification and subjugation of women have worked together with paternalism, creating an environment in which women need to be protected (from men) by men. Fathers perceive themselves to have ownership of their daughters until they “give them away” for marriage. Men respect other men’s ownership of women more than they respect women. A woman is the daughter of a man or the sister of a man until she is the girlfriend or wife of a man. As long as she has a clear relationship to a man, she has some illusion of protection. Without proximity to men, women are particularly vulnerable, and this has been the case for such a long time that it has been normalised and women have been made responsible for increasing proximity to men.

Women are made responsible for our own protection. The burden is consistently put on us to prevent violence against us. We are discouraged from living full lives, being visible, and accessing public space. We need to move quickly and quietly in the attempt to go unnoticed. When we are noticed (by men), we are at risk. Constant messages are sent to us, telling us not to go out at night, to travel in groups, to dress conservatively, to abstain from alcohol, and carry something that can be used as a weapon. We know women are unsafe, just by being women living in a patriarchal, misogynistic world. Still, the focus is on telling women what we need to do be a little less unsafe — and I use this awkward phrasing intentionally — instead of addressing the systems and gender ideology that produces men who are predators.

Tied to gender ideology is the expectation that women show no interest in sex and hide all evidence of sexuality unless in service to a man. Sex continues to be discussed as a service women provide to men, whether out of obligation, kindness, love, or compensation, deriving no pleasure from it ourselves.

Little has been done to change the narrative of sex as a man’s pleasure and woman’s duty. Let it be known: sexual pleasure is for women too.

In recent years, we have worked to focus conversations about sexual violence and, more specifically, identifying acts of sexual violence, on consent. This is important because with consent, sex does not take place. Any sexual activity without consent is a violation of the person or people who did not give consent.

We need to continue to focus on consent, what it looks and sounds like, how it works, and the conditions under which it exists. For example, there is no consent when a person is not conscious and consent can be withdrawn at any time. As we continue to talk about consent as mandatory, we need to encourage the prioritisation of pleasure and affirm diverse sexualities.

Everyone needs to understand that sex is not to be endured by women, but enjoyed. Women are not possession and do not owe sex anyone, but have the right to engage in consensual sexual activity and experience pleasure.

Expanding our conversations, understanding, and practices related to sex to include pleasure requires sex positivity.

We cannot be afraid to acknowledge sexuality, and we have to understand that equipping young people with accurate information and resources helps them to make better choices for themselves and treat others with more respect and care.

With consent and pleasure at the center sexuality education, we can more quickly and easily make distinctions between sex and rape. When we understand pleasure as integral to sex, we also understand the importance of enthusiastic consent.

Comprehensive sexuality education is critical and needs to be in all schools at all grade levels. Each year should build on the foundation of previous years. The “Good Touch, Bad Touch” program is delivered to younger students, and many of them receive no further information about their bodies, sex, or sexuality until much later. They are left to hear and overhear, sift through misinformation, and try to figure things out for themselves.

Ignoring sex, sexuality, and the hormonal changes teenager experience do not make them go away, and they definitely do not protect them.

When they understand that sex should be a good, enjoyable experience for everyone involved, they are better able to identify when an interaction is unsafe.

When they are made aware of the services and resources available to them, they know how to report sexual violence and get the support needed.


1. Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley.

This young adult novel is about Daunis Fontaine, an 18-year-old biracial woman growing up in the Ojibwe community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While it follows her closely, the book captures several issues affecting Native American and other indigenous communities including violence against women and addiction. It highlights the closeness of the communities, value of indigenous ancestral knowledge, and the joy of tradition.

2. Sex Education.

This Netflix series is a good one to watch with your children to spark conversation and, hopefully, make it a bit easier to approach the topic of sex and sexuality in an open, positive way. Otis’ mother is a sex therapist, so he starts his own sex therapy clinic at school.

3. Prepare for what you know is coming.

Sometimes we hope for the best or simply try to ignore the truth, and end up uncomfortable because of failure to prepare (even if there are other factors involved). We have seen, for example, that BPL struggles to provide electricity in the best of times, and this week it announced fuel issues. We should not have to prepare for electricity outages. This is unacceptable. While we express our annoyance, it’s a good idea to keep devices charged, store water if you depend on electricity for it, and do whatever else might increase your comfort during an outage.


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