About the words that make us uncomfortable
Rape. Sexual violence. Those words that make many of us feel uncomfortable. Words we seem to be hearing a lot about lately. More and more survivors speak out each day, and find the courage to share their stories. Yet, these victims still face questions, judgement, and shame. Many still carrying the blame that somehow it was their fault. The very reasons why so many victims of sexual violence remain in silence. We aren’t talking about hundreds of victims; we are talking about millions of victims. It is a global epidemic and statistics show us that more people are affected by sexual violence than cancer.* So why can’t we talk about? Why the silence? Why the taboo? Why is it so unsafe for a victim to say ‘I was raped’? …the myths that perpetuate false truths and a deep lack of understanding.
In reality, who wants to talk about rape and sexual violence? This means having to stare at a really nasty part of humanity in the face. It’s having to accept that we could one day be a victim of this heinous crime. Rape culture helps us keep a harsh reality at arms length. It gives us an excuse to dis-identify with a victim, making it seem less likely for it to happen to someone like you and me. That’s all about to change. Today, if you decide to keep reading, I’m going to shake your world. It’s time to answer rape culture myths and face up to those uncomfortable truths.
What will you get out of it in the end? Hope. Understanding. Courage to break your silence. The ability to help someone else. Knowledge on how to keep you and your children safe. And ultimately, a need to find ways to end a global epidemic affecting 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men and more than 230 million children every year.
My name is Claire McFarlane and I’m a rape survivor.
My story is brutal but all rape stories are brutal. It is a trauma that will stay with me for life. Ironically, the hardest trauma isn’t the one from the rape, but rather the wounds that came from a system that was meant to protect me. It’s this trauma that gave me the strength to speak out. I now use my story to help others. I realised quickly that talking about sexual violence wouldn’t be easy and decided to tackle it from a completely different angle. I’m currently running 16 kilometres of beach in every country of the world with the goal to open dialogue, inspire change and one day, peacefully end sexual violence. It’s called Footsteps To Inspire and I’ve already run in 52 countries. You can watch my TEDx talk here.
Nothing about this journey is easy, and every day I hear stories of horror, and sometimes ones of hope. What I’ve come to understand is there is absolutely no stereotype for sexual violence. It crosses borders, religions, race, gender, age, education, economic status and physical ability. Sexual violence can happen anywhere and in most cases, the victim knows the person inflicting them harm. It’s a cycle that gets repeated from one generation to the next and safeguarded by myths and rape culture.
So what can we do to change this? Let’s start with the biggest myth of all…
Rape and sexual violence is not just a women’s issue.
The world is very focussed on gender equality, and rightly so. What comes with this discussion is the issue of gender-based violence. Yes, the cases of rape and sexual violence towards women are extremely high in numbers, and according to the most widely accepted studies, 1 in 4 women will experience sexual violence at least once in her life. A woman may also be sexually violated more than once in her lifetime and age is not a predetermining factor. So definitely, we need to be doing something about this and making the world safer for women…but women aren’t the only humans affected by sexual violence.
Here are 5 other groups of people who have a high, to very high, risk of being sexually violated:
Children – both girls and boys
The prevalence of child sexual abuse is shocking. Studies by organisations such as the Optimus Foundation and UNICEF are revealing that almost 1 in 3 children have reported exposure to sexual abuse, and the risk is the same for children anywhere in the world. Boys are just as often targets of sexual assault as girls are and in some countries even more likely to be sexually abused. This means that children in Africa and children in Austria are at a similar risk of being sexually abused. And we are not talking about stranger danger, children are most likely to be sexually harmed by someone they know or trust.
The belief that men can’t be raped is a myth in itself, and sadly perpetuated not only by false beliefs, but also laws that limit the scope for sexual violence towards men. Most men will be sexually abused before the age of 18 years old. Rape of adult men occurs more frequently in jail, in military, in war zones, and there are higher risks for men who are gay, bisexual or transgender. One of the biggest challenges facing male sexual assault is how often it is left unreported. In Sweden, the sexual violence clinic at the Stockholm hospital is adapted for receiving male victims – the number of cases are rising every year. However, the male victims usually only report physical assault to the police, not the sexual assault.
LGBTIQ+ (SOGIE) communities
There is a phenomenon called ‘correctional rape’ and is directed to non-heterosexual individuals. In South Africa, lesbian women are often gang-raped to ‘turn them back to being hetrosexual’. Often, the women die due to the brutality of this rape. In South East Asia, SOGIE communities are socially accepted as long as it’s not your own child, and there are many cases of family members arranging the rape of their children who choose to transgender. In other parts of the world, correctional rape is used by families to impregnate their SOGIE daughter and force her into a heterosexual marriage. Transgender women are also very vulnerable to rape, with many stating their first sexual experiences were non-consensual.
People with disabilities
Sexual violence of people with disabilities often goes unreported. This can be because a person has a disability that prevents clear communication or they lack the words to explain what has happened. An abuser, who could be the primary caregiver, may use their position of power to intimidate the person with a disability or take away their tools for communication, such as a computer or phone. People with disabilities are also often not informed about what is and isn’t abuse or consent – their disability might mean that people are touching them all the time. Sexuality and disability are often a taboo topic. It is a widespread belief that disabled people have no sexuality. Not being properly taught about sexuality puts people at higher risk of abuse.
The baby-boomer generation is a growing population and just because someone is elderly does not mean they cannot be sexually abused. It is an area that is poorly understood and under-researched. Sexual assault of the elderly often go unreported due to difficulties communicating, confusion and memory loss. The elderly are most at risk of sexual abuse in care facilities and their own home or that of the sexual offender.
Sexual violence is not about sex, it’s about the abuse of power and that is why anyone on this earth can be sexually abused. It’s a sobering thought and one we probably don’t want to even consider. However, the more we are prepared to understand and acknowledge the issue, the better equipped we are at finding solutions to help, heal and prevent it from happening again.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted,
you can contact these organisations in Austria for help:
Frauen Helpline: 0800/222 555 (Women & Children)
Die Moewe: 01/532 15 15 (Children)
Maenner: 01/603 28 28 (Men & LGBTIQ+)
Claire McFarlane is a South-African born Australian and founder of Footsteps To Inspire. She is a global changemaker, Ambassador for Peace and currently on a mission to run 16 kilometres of beach in every country of the world (230 countries) to support survivors of sexual violence. It is a world first, both as an expedition and social cause. Claire knows how hard it is to be a survivor because she is one. In 1999, Claire was brutally raped and left for dead on the streets of Paris. What followed was a long struggle through the French justice system that only came to an end in October 2015. The ordeal lasted 16 years. Through peaceful outreach and sharing her own personal story, Claire is fast becoming a voice of hope and inspiration to many around the world. More info: www.footstepstoinspire.org
*Note on sexual violence / cancer statistics:
According to statistics, 1 in 4 (25%) women will be affected by sexual violence in her lifetime, 1 in 6 men before the age of 18 will be sexually abused, and 230 million children are sexually abused every year (630,000 per day). These statistics are worse than some cases of cancer, affecting more people across a larger age range. In the USA alone, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, yet 1 in 6 women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape. 1 in 9 men will be affected by prostate cancer , yet 1 in 6 men will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18 years old. Still in the USA, 1 in 285 children are diagnosed with cancer before the age of 20 years old , yet 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18 years old.
header image: Ryoji Iwata via Unsplash