Hello, my name is Eva Ball and I am the Prevention Education Specialist at Rape Victim Advocates, the largest rape-crisis center in the city. I am also the founder of SHEER – Sexuality Health Education to End Rape, a new Chicago-based coalition to address sexual violence through sex-positive prevention education. I am here today to speak with you about sexual violence, the media and young womens’ sexual health.
I want to be clear about something from the beginning: I am not here to BLAME the media for sexual violence. Sexual violence undoubtedly has numerous causes, but I am not here to discuss where it came from. I am here to talk about strategic ways to prevent it and support survivors. I look to the media not as the cause of the problem, but as a potential solution.
We know that sexual violence has huge ramifications on women and girl's sexual health. One in three girls will be sexually abused or assaulted before her 18th birthday. And grown women don't fare much better: one in four women over the age of 18 will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. And we know that many of these girls and women will be assaulted when an otherwise consensual sexual encounter becomes non-consensual. I know first hand that this is the case, because I am a survivor of this type of sexual assault.
I want to take a minute to tell you some of my story. I was raped by a man with whom I had a previous sexual relationship. We had a great time together but did not engage in vaginal intercourse. I expressed to him that I was not ready to do that with him. But one night, he penetrated me anyway. Without my consent. I don't know if he meant to rape me or not. I don't know if that was his intention. But regardless of his intention, the effect was: I WAS RAPED. The person I'd spent 19 years becoming, died. I've spent the years since trying to pick up the remnants I can find, while simultaneously coming to accept that I will NEVER be that person again. In the act of raping me, he killed a large part of me. But despite the fact that I'd always been a loud-mouth, I didn't speak up or seek help for months. I didn't tell soul, because I was confused about what happened and because I was ashamed. I felt worthless.
But I a not here to depress you all. I am here to motivate you. I want to start at the unlikely place of looking at media's portrayals of women today.
I google image-searched "women in magazines" and here are some of the first page results:
If you were an alien from outer space, and these pictures were all you knew about women, what would you think a "woman" should be? What would you think it means to be "a woman"?
- Sexually available
- Hyper sexual
- Light Skin
- Straight hair
Of course not ALL images in the media show women this way. But many of them do.
Now let's move away from visual images in the media and talk instead about language. I want to think of words used in the media and pop culture to describe women and girls who have sex or are sexually active. What words have you heard in popular music, or elsewhere in the media?
- bust down
- chicken head
They're all insults. So is it fair to say that the language used in popular media gives girls the message that it's a BAD thing to be sexually active? [yes].
Okay now let's put these things together:
- bust down
- chicken head
Visual images SHOW young women that they should be hyper sexual and always available to men. But LANGUAGE used in the media tells young women they are worth less if they actually BEHAVE the way we show them they should. It's the ultimate catch-22.
The result of these mixed messages is a type of social schizophrenia. Young women act sexually -- they're hormones are raging and they've been shown that that is how they should act -- BUT they feel ashamed about it because they've internalized the message that they are IN FACT worth less as people because it.
So let's connect this back to sexual violence. If we combine this internalized shame that comes with being a sexually active young woman, with the fact that many young women are raped during otherwise consensual "hook-ups" then we've got a BIG problem on our hands. We have scores of young women being raped and not being able to speak out or seek healing without the reasonable fear that she will be labeled "just a slut."
That's why I didn't speak up. I was scared of being labeled and devalued by others. And in the 8 years that I've been doing this work I've spoken to more young women than I can count who were silenced for the same reasons after an assault similar to my own.
Okay. So we know what the problem is.
So let's talk solutions...how do we empower young survivors to speak up and get help?
I believe one solution is to give girls a clear message about what sexually healthy behavior looks like.And we need to be strategic in doing so. We must focus on finding out WHAT WILL WORK to improve girls' sexual health? What will make unintended pregnancies go down? What will limit the spread of HIV? How we can empower young girls to speak up and get help when they are assaulted or abused?
I think the answer to all these VITAL questions lies in one simple solution: We stop the shame. We accept that raging hormones are a natural part of being an adolescent young woman, and that biology is nothing to be ashamed of.
How do we do this? By being brave. By speaking up if you think young women are worth more than their so-called "virginity." If we believe that a woman's sexual history DOES NOT impact her worth as a human being, we need to shout it from the rooftops. So I want to know: who in this room believes that young women are valuable human being regardless their sexual history? Please, make some noise...
Okay, now that we've identified ourselves, we need to take this message and spread it whichever way we can. Tweet, facebook status updates, organization's websites, use it in fliers and advertisements. Let's come together and use the media to spread the message LOUD AND CLEAR that:
Young women are valuable human beings. Their value is not tied to their sexual history. Period.
Surviving isn't good enough for our young women. They deserve to thrive.