IV. DETERMINANTS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE
Attempts to explain sexual violence in terms of nature, biology or evolution, not only over-simplify a complex phenomenon, but in effect (if not intention) perpetuate the problem by implying that it lies beyond human control.
Sexual violence is a gendered phenomenon: its nature and extent reflect preexisting social, cultural and economic disparities between men and women. The relationship between victim and perpetrator reflects existing power differentials or struggles between people: for example between husbands and wives, between older men and younger men or children, between sex workers and clients or police, or between members of particular ethnic groups.
In the same way that sexual violence mirrors gender inequalities so it reflects other forms of social inequality. Far from being universal, sexual violence is clearly associated with specific social settings and circumstances: in particular those characterised by social and political conflict and the breakdown of law and order which can occur in their wake; situations in which relations are hierarchically structured in terms of dominance and submission (most commonly reflected in terms of gender relations but possibly in other social or political rivalries). The vast majority of sexually violent acts are committed by men, whether against women, children or other men.
The role of substance use, particularly alcohol, in relation to sexual violence is multi-faceted and complex. It is also gendered. Particular substances, e.g. alcohol, may affect individual behaviour (for instance in relation to disinhibition or aggression) while the social settings in which they are consumed, for example exclusively male environments, may implicitly or explicitly condone sexually violent behaviour. A study in New York City revealed a dynamic and mutually-reinforcing cycle of trauma and abuse in relation to the vulnerability of female crack users to sexual violence.
However women may also be implicated as accomplices or as perpetrators: within the family, mothers in law may abuse in-marrying women. Research in secondary schools in Harare revealed that 30% of 549 pupils reported sexual abuse: half of whom were boys reporting abuse by female perpetrators. On a larger scale, evidence clearly points to involvement of women (including teachers, journalists, nurses) in the Rwandan genocide whether by inciting others to commit violence, by benefiting from the violence or by direct personal involvement.
The sexual victimisation of men and boys occurs and does so on a considerable scale in certain situations. However, it is highly likely that the shame and stigma associated with such violence will result in massive under-reporting. Responses to sexual violence against boys and men also reveal the extent to which sexual victimisation and passivity are perceived, in many cultures, to be utterly inconsistent with masculine gender and sexual identities.
While there is always the danger that highlighting the need to consider male sexual victimisation may distract attention from the more substantial problem of -sexual violence against women and girls, this does not necessarily follow: understanding more fully the specifically gendered and sexual dimensions of sexual violence, without resorting to uninformed generalisations and gender and sexual stereotypes, may prove ultimately to be illuminating in addressing the problem of violence more generally.
Evidence from cross-cultural anthropological studies suggests that male sexual aggression and violence arc not biologically inevitable, but rather that they occur when:
"..masculinity is associated with aggression and sexual conquest, domineering sexual behaviour and violence become not only a means of structuring power relations between men and women but a way of establishing power relations among men."
(Heise. 1995. p. 130)
Or in the words of the report of the 1997 UNESCO Expert Group Meeting on Male Roles and Masculinities in the Perspective of a Culture of Peace:
"....biological differences are biological differences, while social patterns of violence require social explanations and social solutions."
Power is not distributed evenly among people, but according to specific social differences: for example gender, class, ethnicity, caste and religion. The resentments arising from these differences (real or perceived) may be used to justify violence.
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