Monday, June 24, 2013

Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Let's Stop Sexual Assault Where it Starts: With the Attackers

This editorial appeared in the local Tucson newspaper, The Daily Star, a couple of weeks ago. She advocates here for teaching our boys that rape is a criminal act, not a mistake or a bad decision. More importantly, we need to stop perpetuating the "boys will be boys" (the male rationalization) and "men can't control themselves" (the female explanation) nonsense that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Let's pin the issue of sexual assault where it belongs: on the attackers

June 06, 2013 • Sarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star

Let's talk about the rapists. Conversations, including in those in Congress, about how to get thousands of military women who have been sexually assaulted to believe, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that their accounts will be heard and addressed with justice skips an elemental part of the equation: stopping the creation of victims.

So why don't we talk about stopping rape at its source? Why not instill in our young men the knowledge that rape, sexual assault, going too far, taking what you want because you can - whatever description applies - is not excusable? It's a criminal act, not a bad decision.

Let's focus on the people who attack, on the males who choose - assaulting another person is not something that just happens - to violate another person. Let's talk about the individuals who force themselves onto, and into, another human being.

Yes, into another human being. Let's not airbrush what we're talking about by couching it in language that buffers the reality of sexual assault.

The news is filled with stories of rampant sexual assault in the military. A Pentagon survey last year estimated that 26,000 troops - men and women - received "unwanted sexual contact" last year. Just 3,374 came forward to report they'd been sexually assaulted. Many do not report attacks for fear of retaliation or shunning from their military units.

Young women are familiar with the how-to-not-get-raped litany of don'ts: Don't get drunk, don't wear sexy clothing, don't flirt too much, don't be alone at parties, don't accept drinks and don't leave your drink unattended, don't trust strangers or people you know, don't walk alone.

How about this list of don'ts for young men: Don't assume. Don't take. Don't assault.

Don't rape.

It sounds so obvious. But it's evidently not. I've known otherwise intelligent young men who honestly do not understand that a woman is not automatically flattered by sexual attention - that trying to kiss someone who clearly doesn't want to be kissed isn't a compliment.

It goes beyond telling boys "no means no."

We have to take the conversation past the don't-be-a-victim to don't-victimize. The burden of stopping sexual assault belongs most to those in the position to attack.

The conversation has to go beyond telling a boy to treat a girl like he'd want his sister or mother to be treated. That's fine advice, but I'm willing to bet that few guys, no matter their age, are thinking of their mothers or sisters when they're choosing to take what they want, to exercise power and control over another person.

Shifting the responsibility from victims to perpetrators won't be a light lift. Take this insightful comment from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., at a Senate committee hearing on sexual assault in the military.

"If we're going to have women in combat, I think the potential for the issue to increase is going to become even greater," Chambliss said. Most enlisted troops are between 17 and 23, he said, and added, "Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur."

The illusion that men can't control themselves is ludicrous. Millions of men work with women, talk to us, see us every day and don't become rapists. This isn't a problem of raging hormones or having too many women around.

This is a problem, in part, of expectations. Of what behavior and attitudes men will accept from other men. Of what's tolerated socially and what boys learn about respecting themselves and others when they're growing up.

My mind goes to a recent conversation with a couple of young men in their early 20s. I asked what they think of the "boys will be boys" attitude that's an undercurrent in many discussions about sexual assault. I wanted to know more about how young men learn what's OK and what's not.

James summed it up:

"Boys will be boys - until someone talks to them and teaches them, and then they'll be men."

Yes, they will.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Her column appears on Thursdays. Email her at

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