How societal gender norms may impact sexual assault

As Denim Day was observed in the village on April 24, Scarsdale’s Safe Coalition held a public discussion of social beliefs about what is “masculine” and “feminine” and how those concepts relate to sexual violence.

Denim Day began after a 1999 ruling by the Italian Supreme Court in which a rape conviction was overturned because the justices felt the victim must have helped the person remove her jeans, implying consent. The next day, women in the Italian Parliament came to work wearing denim jeans in solidarity with the victim.

The tradition continues worldwide each year as a symbol of protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault.

To raise awareness locally, the Safe Coalition hosted about a dozen people at the Scarsdale Woman’s Club for a dialog about sexual assault myths, gender norms and how they might be a risk factor in sexual assault. The program coincided with a workshop presented to all 11th-graders at Scarsdale High School.

“This is a continuous conversation in our high school, which is very special,” said Safe Coalition coordinator Allison Hartman.

One myth that was debunked was that many people lie about being raped, or give false reports. In reality, only 2.8 percent of rapes are falsely reported, which is in line with the statistic for reports of other felonies.

Another point was rape is very often underreported and, “It’s not just a woman’s problem,” said Safe Coalition coordinator Lauren Pomerantz.

One part of the presentation discussed gender norms and the different messages boys and girls hear as they grow up.

“What were you wearing? How much did you drink? Were you flirting?” were among the messages that were presented, and everyone who attended the discussion said he or she was aware of such comments. “It’s everywhere,” said Lisa Lastorino, senior investigator with New York State Police’s Campus Sexual Assault Victims Unit. “It’s in music, books, movies, things that have been taught from when we were younger.”

As kids grow up, they absorb messages of what masculinity and femininity mean.

Often times, the man is seen as tough and aggressive while women are seen as softer spoken and “kind,” said Pomerantz.

These messages are ingrained into kids as they get older and enforced by what they see around them. Whether it’s from their families, friends or other relationships, their environment impacts kids, said Hartman.

The coalition also covered consent and what it means in relationships.

How societal gender norms may impact sexual assault 2

It can be a confusing thing to understand, Pomerantz said, especially when one partner is nonverbal.

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat, said as a lawmaker it’s important to define what consent is and at what age a person is deemed capable of giving consent.

New York’s age of consent is 17.

Hartman said one lesson taught to students is to pay attention to body language, which can speak volumes about whether a person is consenting or not.

There are, of course, clear circumstances for nonconsent, like when an individual is passed out, when a person is 16 or under and when the individual says no.

Another topic in the discussion was the role of a bystander.

“The notion of ‘it’s not my business’ is a big tagline that we hear,” Hartman said.

She said it’s important for people to be supportive and look out for one another at parties or events, especially if there’s someone who’s a known predator.

Scarsdale Detective Patricia Arcesi brought up the idea of teaching kids at a young age about respect and boundaries.

“Even something as simple as preschoolers asking if they can give hugs,” she said. “They have to understand they can’t just touch and take. These conversations shouldn’t just be with teens in a reactionary way, it should start way sooner than that.”

Arcesi said parents should keep conversations as age-appropriate as possible, but it’s never too soon to start teaching children basic respect and kindness.

Having discussions at home about consent and respect can help address social problems like sexual assault, Pomerantz said, but less than half of all SHS juniors said they have had conversations at home about these issues.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do this [program with parents] is the idea of where our kids are having this conversation,” Pomerantz said. She said just 48 percent of SHS 11th-graders reported having conversations around these issues at home, while 83 percent reported having them at school and 64 percent said they were having them among their peers. Where I think we are unfortunately lacking is those conversations going on at home.”

There may be a variety of reasons these conversations aren’t happening at home, Pomerantz said, but it’s an important conversation to have.

During an exchange between the audience and the experts, Lastorino pointed out there’s only so much parents can do to teach risk reduction, but that can’t be the only way to reduce the rate of sexual assault.

“We have to teach the prevention aspect as well,” she said. “Otherwise, it puts the responsibility on people not to get assaulted.”

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