It’s Time to Talk About Sexual Assault

Why A Man Is Writing This Article

I grew up in a home with all boys. No sisters. Just me, my brothers, and my parents. My home life was a warm and positive one. I was active in school – on sports teams, in clubs, and I was a member of student government. I had many friends. I lived a quiet, happy life.

When I was younger – in Cub Scouts – I distinctly remember receiving training about not helping strangers with carrying in groceries or sleeping in the same tent as a scout master. I didn’t understand why – I always thought it was because I’d get kidnapped and held for ransom like in the movies.

It wasn’t until I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini as a sophomore in highschool that I was first exposed to the horrific concept of sexual assault. Assef and his gang – fictional boys much younger than I was – held down Hassan and sexually assaulted him in a back alley in Kabul. It was a cold, straightforward depiction of sexual assault from start to finish. Suddenly a great mystery was uncovered to me, and right then I finally understood why I wasn’t to play doctor with friends’ cousins or get rides from strangers after school. I didn’t sleep well for two days. I suppressed this new knowledge, not knowing how common sexual assault really was – thinking it was a sensational rarity contained in books and nightmares of the worst kind.

As I passed through high school and on into college, friends (male and female) started opening up to me about the abuse they had been subjected to. All I could do was lend a listening ear as tears were shed by people who had experienced so much worse than I had. Here I was, trying to comfort people who had been through hell – and I was having nightmares from two pages in The Kite Runner.

My article is primarily written for men who unknowingly have a bias against victims of sexual assault. You probably don’t know that you have it. I didn’t. You probably are just like a lot of dudes out there. Guys who spend their time on ESPN.com or on YouTube watching Jimmy Fallon videos. Most guys don’t spend their time looking up articles about women and men who have been subjected to sex crimes. Unless we’ve been directly affected by it, we assume there isn’t really a need to.

For those of you who don’t know much about sexual assault, it’s time we unplug our ears and listen to those who have experienced it. Those who, for too long, have been too ashamed to speak up or who may have been silenced because they have spoken up. We need to listen because frankly this is a huge issue and we don’t understand it. And we need to reach out and start helping.

Let’s start with some basic facts about sexual assault.

One In Three

A study from George Mason University in 2005 reports that 1 in 3 American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, “247,730 people were raped/sexually assaulted in the US” in 2002. To put that number in perspective, the number of people who were sexually assaulted in 2002 could completely fill LaVell Edwards stadium in Provo, Utah almost 4 times.

If you know three women, you probably know someone who has been sexually assaulted. Due to the private nature of the crime and the trauma it puts victims through, you probably don’t hear about it much. But it’s there. Sexual assault is far too common in our society.

What is sexual assault? “The state of Utah defines sexual assault as any unwanted sexual contact,” says Brittany Plothow, Founder and CEO of the Utah-based non-profit organization We Are One in Three. We Are One in Three is a non-profit organization that helps educate people about sexual assault. A UVU graduate, Plothow has a Bachelor’s Degree in Behavioral Science.

“Walking down the street and some guy gropes you. That’s sexual assault,” she says. “I had a friend who lived in Europe for a while and every time she was on a bus someone would grab her inappropriately. That’s sexual assault. It’s a lot more rampant than I think people realize. I think a lot of people have a hard time accepting that because a lot of people view sexual assault as some stranger in the bushes that attacks you as you’re walking home.”

In fact, most sexual assaults and rapes are not committed by strangers at all, but by men who are close to the victim. Two-thirds of sexual assault survivors are attacked by someone they know – often an intimate partner like a date, boyfriend, or husband. 77% of attacks happen in a residence. How can this be? “Guys are taught to keep pushing and eventually [girls] will say yes [to sexual advances]… That creates what we call ‘gray rape,’” says Plothow. “That’s where the guys don’t realize that what they’re doing is wrong, because they have been educated by the culture and the media. Coercion can almost be as bad as holding someone down physically. That still counts legally… We need to educate guys. Let them know that when she says no, you need to stop.” It doesn’t matter if she was being flirty, it doesn’t matter if you’re dating, and it doesn’t matter if you were even making out heavily: none of those things give you the right to drive things to sexual intercourse. If she says she is uncomfortable in a situation or that she wants to stop or slow down, you have to stop – or you could find yourself guilty of sexual assault. In the heat of the moment, some guys keep going, and soon they find that suddenly, they’ve become a rapist. Check out this article about “nice guys who rape.”

Heavy stuff, man. It could happen to any of us if we’re not respectful and extremely careful.

Wait. Guys Are Being Educated to Rape?

I know, I know. That statement sounds ridiculous. I’ll be honest, when I first heard about it, I thought it was some kind of conspiracy theory – like it was the belief that there are some corporate big wigs hiding in their office buildings, secretly paying people to promote rape. That’s not it at all. Hear me out. This educational process, or “rape culture” as it has been dubbed, is simply the prevailing notion in society that women should expect to be raped or sexually assaulted, and that it is their fault if they get raped because they weren’t being careful.

There is a startling example from right here in Provo (my current residence) that you might or might not be familiar with: it’s the classily named geographical landmark south of BYU campus we call “Rape Hill.” That’s right. We have a location that we openly refer to as Rape Hill. A hill where one of the most unspeakable atrocities is committed regularly. And we joke about it. Hilarious.

BYU recently re-landscaped this hill and installed emergency phones along the well-lit trail to eliminate the stigma and increase safety for women walking home at night. Kudos to BYU.

However, there’s a much larger issue here. “In my ward at BYU we had a list of phone numbers that you could call if you needed somebody to walk you home at night,” says Plothow. “That’s great and wonderful, but you’re attacking the symptom, not the problem. The symptom is that women can’t walk alone at night. The problem is you have rapists.”

Rapists aren’t dragons or unicorns. They don’t just spontaneously appear or fall from outer space. They are people who are born to human parents as human babies, probably stood in line for the swings next to you in elementary school. Then, somewhere along the line they became what we normally picture in our minds when we hear the word “rapist” (you know, the Craigslist cannibals who light people on fire and make creepy dolls in their wood shop and live in dark basements), or they stay normal people and slowly become desensitized to sex to the point where they start to feel entitled to it – and that sense of entitlement never gets checked and eventually becomes violent and obsessive. Let me explain.

Just as women are held to ridiculous standards by the media, so are men. Men are told from boyhood that we have to rescue, that we have to win, that we have to achieve. Sports are all based on this pattern of struggle, triumph, and achievement. In video games, we have to push through everything in our way in order to get the goal – the castle. Then when we reach the castle, we are told, “Thank You, Mario, but our princess is in another castle!” and we continue on until we get the girl – our new goal. We are always the contenders, and the girl is always the trophy. “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

As kids, we may not quite understand why saving the girl is the goal other than that it’s a nice thing to do. Take the following as an example of how a young boy may be trained by the media about how he should view women:

A boy sees a James Bond film for the first time, and suddenly he understands why he needs to rescue the Princess. Here is James Bond, the “ultimate man.” He overcomes all obstacles in his way. He shoots them, drives over them, blows them up, all without consequences. Then he gets not just one girl, but ALL the girls. And then he shows us what to do with them.

Curious about how Bond acts towards girls, this boy may wonder why Bond and a girl are both naked under the sheets. So he takes to the internet.

Boom. Porn.

The average age that a man is exposed to pornography these days is eleven. Eleven years old.

Suddenly the boy finds out much more than he wanted to know. And now the secret is revealed. “OH! THAT’S WHAT THEY DO UNDER THE SHEETS!” And suddenly the boy wants it. Rampant masturbation ensues. And now he understands how pleasurable sex is. But he doesn’t quite feel like James Bond when he’s alone. He wants companionship. He wants a woman. He wants a sex partner. He wants to know what it’s actually like.

The sad thing is, what boys like this have seen will NEVER be what it’s actually like. They are exposed to impossibly large organs, airbrushed actors, and violence. Loads of violence. 88% of all pornographic movies are physically violent towards women.

See the difference here? A boy goes from rescuing a princess because it’s morally correct to save the life of someone else, to rescuing a woman because if he does she will reward him with sex. And if the woman resists a sexual advance, that just becomes another level – another game to play or a puzzle to solve until at last the goal is attained. “How can I win her over so that I get the prize?”

In The “Good Guy” Myth by Taylor Callobre, Callobre says, “Stop thinking that what people so loathingly refer to as the ‘friendzone’ is some sort of purgatory women put ‘nice guys’ into. My friendship is not a crappy consolation prize that you’re left with if I deny you a sexual relationship – and my body is not your reward for good behavior.”

TV and movies rejoice in the male mating struggle. We cheer when nerds are so persistent that eventually girls “see them for who they really are” and give them sex. We love American Pie, we love Big Bang Theory – we love all of the shows where the guy fails time and time again but in the end comes through with a win. He gets the girl.

Our society is raising virgins that are already addicted to an airbrushed, sensationalized, violent version of sex. We are raising them to stop at nothing until they win, and are teaching them that women and the sex they have to offer is the prize. Then we are sending them after women who have incredibly low self esteem and are taught that not pleasing a man by looking how he wants or giving him what he wants is the biggest failure on the planet. Here, says Plothow, “you have a perfect storm for a nasty, awful, cancerous society.”

Still not convinced that our culture perpetuates a feeling of the male need to constantly achieve and to be entitled to sexual gratification? Check out the story behind one of the most celebrated WWII photos in history. Rape culture is the reason why this picture was all over the news and is still in our history books. Sailor Glenn Edward McDuffie helped win the war, came home, and spontaneously claimed himself a girl. He won the war. He deserved a prize. She gave it to him. How romantic.

U.S. Navy sailor Glenn Edward McDuffie kisses a nurse in Times Square in an impromptu moment at the close of World War Two

Never mind that he was drunk, did not know the girl, and forced the kiss upon her. If you look closely, you will see that she’s in a headlock and her arms are limp at her side. She’s clearly not reciprocating. “That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me,” said Greta, the victim.

I know, right? My mind was blown when I learned that.

Guys, we are being educated to look at women as objects to obtain rather than human beings that we need to get to know and learn to cooperate with.

The Need for Men to Wake Up

For some reason, we as a society have just accepted the fact that one in three women will be sexually assaulted and that one in five will be raped. Instead of changing it, we assume that it is inevitable and that girls need to gear up for it. In reality, we need to sit down and have a talk with our boys. “We can change this through education,” Plothow says.

Okay guys, I’ll be honest. While this article is clearly identifying with and embracing feminist ideology, I really hate, as many of you probably do, how I have been treated online and in person by some of the feminists I have met.  But I’m starting to learn that, first of all, there are different kinds of feminists. True, REAL feminists are incredibly pro male. While passionate, they are kind and understanding and willing to communicate openly, and not to the detriment of others. Secondly, those who may have attacked you on Facebook (who, let me tell you, frustrate a lot of the first group) may just be deeply hurt individuals who are tired of being ignored or treated insensitively by people like me. I, Zach Collier, was born free from the horrors of sexual assault, which means that I don’t understand the physical and psychological effects of sexual assault. Since coming to this realization, I have stopped drawing lines in the sand. I have stopped looking at “guys vs. girls” and started looking at “us.” The big picture. Humanity.

I asked Plothow how men can get involved in this conversation without being criticized or berated. “A lot of feminists are misguided about what feminism is,” she says. “They feel that it’s this anti-male thing, and it’s not. The definition of a feminist is someone who believes that men and women are equal in all aspects of life and that they should be treated the same. Not that women should be better than men.”

Here is an example of a simple way women are unequal to men in society. “I had a professor in college who was six-five, 300 pounds. A big scary looking guy,” says Plothow. “He said, ‘Not only am I a man, but I’m huge. I will never know what it’s like to walk to my car and have to put my keys between my knuckles in case I have to attack someone. I will never know what that’s like.’ I was raised my entire life feeling like that, and I had no idea that guys didn’t feel that way. I thought everyone was scared.”

Women can often feel physically threatened in public – just walking home at night. That’s something few men will ever have to feel. Men tend to have a more dominant, present voice in society. This is why We Are One in Three is asking men to get involved in the conversation about sexual assault.

“We welcome men to be involved. We want men to be involved in the conversation, otherwise we come across as angry feminists,” says Plothow. “We would love to have men more involved. It is hard because it is an uncomfortable topic and men do have this stand-offish feeling about what we do because they don’t want to feel that they are being labeled as a rapist. We understand! Not all men look at porn, and not all men are rapists. I think the more we have men involved in the conversation, the more people will start to believe that.”

Here are some ways you can get involved in the conversation about sexual assault:

  • Visit waoit.org to learn more about the issue
  • Apply to become a writer for We Are One in Three
  • Apply to become a volunteer presenter
  • Share articles and spread information through word of mouth

“Honestly, I would love to have a guy on our team. One hundred percent a full time member of our team… It would help us out, and it would make men feel more comfortable. It’s a touchy subject – and I get that. But that’s what we are trying to change.”

We Are One in Three held a co-ed conversation at the University of Utah in September about how to solve the problem of sexual assault on campuses. Plothow says, “It was fascinating. We got a male point of view, and it helped me to understand how to go forward with my organization. It helped the men understand. One of them said, ‘I had no idea what rape culture was. I didn’t know that was a thing. I can see what you’re talking about now.’ Doing co-ed conversation is really interesting, as along as it’s not damning, it’s not demeaning, and we’re not talking down to anyone. It’s like, this is what we’re dealing with, this is why we need your help, and this is why you should know what’s going on. It’s not about pointing fingers and saying, ‘You dirty man.’ That’s something we talk a lot about as a team. Okay, how can we handle this in such a way that we don’t come across as aggressive towards men and put them off. That’s the last thing we want to do. We want them actively involved in everything we are doing. We can’t change anything just addressing the women. We’re not going to get anywhere that way. We need the help of men. You are a major part of the conversation. We need you to say, ‘No. This isn’t okay.’ Men, we are asking you to speak up and say no to other men, and that’s a scary thing.”

We Are One in Three

Growing up, Plothow had always heard the statistic that one in three women would be assaulted. Even she, as a woman, didn’t fully understand that statistic. She says, “It never really hit home until I had an experience when I was dating a guy and our relationship ended in sexual assault.” This was a very difficult experience, one that Plothow didn’t blaze abroad openly. But one night Plothow was given an opportunity to channel this tragedy into something remarkable.

“I was sitting at work one night and there were three women in the room – me and two other women – and for some reason we all started talking about our experiences with sexual assault, and all three of us had been sexually assaulted and all three of us had been assaulted by someone we knew really well. And it was just like, OKAY. It’s not just one in three. For me, it was all three of us in the room. That was just kind of so intense for me. It was almost like a sign. Like God said, ‘Okay, this is what you should be doing.’ After that experience I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew it would be a hard road because it makes people feel uncomfortable. But that solidified what I needed to do in my mind… It became something that I couldn’t not talk about.”

We Are One in Three is a brand new start-up. They recently had their launch party in Salt Lake City. Currently, everything is paid for out of pocket by those who run the organization, as they have not yet obtained 501(c)(3) status, which helps with grants and fundraising. Everything is volunteer. When the members of We Are One in Three do presentations, they pay for the space. They are not soliciting for contributions. Just for help in spreading their message.

“I would rather be poor and be doing something that I was passionate about and that I loved, and that was really important, than to have money,” says Plothow.

For more information, visit waoit.org.

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