Opinion: What does it mean for a straight white man to become aware of sexual assault?

Meditation practices distinguish attention and awareness. One simple way to distinguish them is to understand attention as a mental or conceptual activity — one’s thoughts — and awareness as what falls outside of the mind — perceptions, sensations, attunements.

President Trump issued a proclamation on March 31 declaring April Sexual Assault Awareness Month — the second president to do so. Rather than seeing this as ironic or hypocritical, one can see this as fitting: His actions throughout his life, about which he has boasted, did much to draw attention to the flagrant nature of sexual assault as part of a larger American institution of power.

In some ways, the media does a good job of bringing sexual assault to our attention. In general, our attention is drawn to white, middle class, female victims of sexual assault — or to their powerful, white male attackers — Donald Trump, Brock Turner. Sometimes the one accused of assault is a black man, generally an athlete: Pierre Pierce is a local example, resurfacing every time his former coach gets a new job. Sometimes, the media allows us to pay attention to white male victims — but only if they are under age, and only if the accused is a person of power (often in the sports world): Jerry Sandusky comes to mind.

Iowa City ped mall at night. — Photo by Alan Light

Focusing our attention on those accused of assault is useful when it comes to protecting the privacy of victims, and high profile personalities are always bait for headline writers. What is problematic, though, is that these news stories tend to perpetuate the sociopolitical structures that empower white men. Not only do they continue to associate taking the bodies of others as part of the privilege of white male power, but they also tend to demonize black and immigrant men accused of assault, using them as reason to increase the militarization of police, to protect white female bodies — bodies that only white men have the right to take.

White men in America have a long history of justifying sexual assault on women’s bodies, starting from the days when black women were treated as property and myths about the sexual aggression of black men were used to maintain a power structure that, largely, remains firmly intact.

In the past decade — particularly in the past two years — more has been done to draw attention to sexual assault in general ways. Memes that focus attention on how women are not responsible for being assaulted, as well as ones that define consent in terms of a cup of tea, are a welcome alternative to old tropes that justify assault in terms of a woman’s intoxication or choice of garb. They are helpful in drawing our attention to how to rethink the problem of sexual assault, but fall short of generating awareness of the problem.

Awareness comes when choosing to step away from the normal functioning of the world in order to investigate it. I grew to appreciate the distinction between attention and awareness when I became a vegetarian, and also when I gave up drinking alcohol. Both choices increased my awareness of how much both meat and alcohol are advertised. Drinks are available everywhere, in every store, as part of every social gathering. Alternatives to eating animals have become more prominent, but remain alternatives, not expectations.

In the same way, we live in a culture where sexual assault is normalized. In part, this is because white men are still assumed as the norm around which culture operates: Because they do not see themselves as targets of such assaults, the problem is said to not exist. We may, on occasion, pay attention to the problem — but we remain unaware. Becoming aware of sexual assault means becoming aware of the insidious ways that it is reinforced as a normal, daily expectation.

Women, transgender persons and those who have become intimately acquainted with sexual violence come to a first-hand awareness of the culture of sexual assault. They become aware of the importance of pieces of legislature that forbid unisex bathrooms, breastfeeding in public, equity in pay. They become aware of the violence implicit in “compliments” concerning appearance, whistles and comments shouted from across the street, the assumption that female bodies are created for the gratification of men. (This gratification, ultimately, has little to do with sex: It emerges through the continuation of the culture in which some bodies are created for the possession of others.)

It is necessary that white men come to the same awareness — that sexual assault transcends rape, which is only the most intimately destructive form of assault — in the same way that it is necessary that white men become aware of the latent racism that still informs a culture governed by an assumption of white supremacy. Donald Trump’s assumption of the office of president — and the resurgence of visible racial and gendered violence (active and passive) in its wake — has helped to reveal this. Problematically, this revelation generally still operates at the level of attention, rather than awareness. Individuals, not the culture, continue to be indicted as problems.

Awareness of sexual assault means becoming aware of a war waged on the bodies of others, a war that limits attention to the other’s body as the sole source of that person’s identity. The second step is shaming or negating that body as having no inherent worth. Just as racial assaults occur with jokes and discriminatory voting and housing practices, so also do sexual assaults emerge through homophobic jokes or the practice of slut shaming.

These are an assault both on those with culturally valued bodies as well as those whose bodies deviate from the cultural fantasy. By focusing attention on the body of the other as an object, they transform the other into that which is less than human. A culture that accepts this as a given, and then creates laws that further solidify these assumptions, is a culture in which sexual assault continues to create conditions that ultimately uphold the sovereignty of white male bodies.

Drawing attention to sexual assault is a good thing, especially as it continues to empower those whose bodies are frequent targets to speak against it. Drawing attention has helped those who are oppressed by this culture to learn to resist accepting it as a given and to spotlight its grossest violations. Drawing attention constitutes a necessary — but still insufficient — step in stopping the widespread cultural support of sexual assaults as a given.

My hope for Sexual Assault Awareness Month is for everyone finally to become aware of the broken nature of our culture — including white men. Ultimately, this culture works to everyone’s disadvantage: Not only does it make it more likely that women and others with targeted bodies will internalize and mirror the logic of their assaults, but also it makes honest, equal relationships far more difficult.

It requires constant vigilance to detect the passive acceptance of sexual assault in the everyday world and bring it to attention — to note it as something that is unacceptable, even if it is normal. It requires that everyone attend to the brokenness of the system that assaults the bodies of those who are not straight white men. It requires a patient work of education, rather than accusation — asking questions about why comments or advertisements are considered normal; asking about the effects of such things rather than engaging in arguments that lead to defensiveness as a way to protect against a quickly erased sense of shame.

Not only do straight white men need to become aware of the entirety of the culture of sexual assault, but so do white women. Black men. Children. Straight white men do not constitute the majority of the social order, even if they maintain a vast majority over the power to define what is normal. Naming sexual assault as part of our culture, becoming aware of it even beyond that which we are instructed to attend to and discussing it in ways that invite others to witness why it is harmful constitute three small potential virtues of this month. With any luck, it will turn into an ongoing celebration of awareness until the culture itself recedes into history.

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