The following are some concepts and terms useful to understanding sexual violence and how identity—and attitudes about identity—are related to assault.
When thinking about identity and sexual violence, it is important to understand that gender identity is not the same as biological sex. Gender is a spectrum, and individuals can choose to identify in endless ways. Nonetheless, people are categorized by those around them, sometimes in terms that are at odds with how they see themselves. People who identify as “cis-gender”—those whose gender identity matches their biological sex—may experience this less as a problem. Transgender individuals are often subjugated through intentional misidentification, even being described as “it.” This mis-gendering and un-gendering is closely linked with rape culture and heteronormativity—the assertion that only a male gender and a female gender exist.
When considering risk in the context of sexual and gendered violence, it is important to acknowledge that it is not the survivor’s duty to eliminate risk. Therefore, is not the survivor’s responsibility to change their behavior; their behavior is not the problem. Reducing risk involves increasing awareness about sexual assault, educating ourselves and others about healthy sexual practices like active consent, and being accountable for our own actions in relation to sex and consent.
Heteronormativity is the normative claim recognizing only two genders: male and female. This restrictive perspective asserts that people only fall into either of those categories and that relationships—as well as sex—only occur between cis-gendered men and women.
A rape culture encourages, condones, or ignores sexual aggression and gendered violence. Many people believe that in the West today we live in a culture of violence that, when expressed in relation to sex and gender, manifests as rape culture. Because we live in a culture where sexual assault and discrimination is excused, brushed off, or ignored, survivors of sexual abuse are often blamed for their assault and various myths about sexual assault are spread.
It is important to remember that rape and sexual assault can happen to anyone: men or women (cis-gendered or trans) as well as those who are gender queer or gender nonconforming. Sex workers can be rape victims. Someone can be raped or assaulted regardless of their race or socioeconomic status, their sexual orientation, the clothing and makeup they are wearing, their sexual past, or their relationship to the perpetrator. No one is ever “asking for it.”
It is important to remember that not all perpetrators are masked men hiding in bushes. Although rape can be perpetrated by a stranger, it is far more common for a survivor to know the person who assaulted them. This is commonly referred to as “acquaintance rape.” The Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that 73 percent of all sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger.
Survivor Blaming and Slut Shaming
Rape culture characterizes assault as a natural consequence of provocation. This deeply problematic, flawed perspective perpetuates the myth that sexual violence is the survivor’s fault and is expressed in behavior as “survivor shaming.” One of the most common forms of survivor blaming is known as “slut shaming,” which is characterized by comments such as “they deserved it or were asking for it because they were…"
- walking around late at night
- in a relationship with their rapist
- not fighting back
- drinking alcohol
- making eye contact with an attacker
The individual’s self-presentation—clothing and make up—and sexual history are often used to explain and excuse assault.
Survivor shaming and blaming relies on two assumptions: that
an “attack” took place and that the assault occurred between two people of the
opposite gender. These assumptions are based on a very narrow definition of
assault, where the crime can only committed by strangers, and victims are
people who fit in the heteronormative male-female binary.
This understanding of assault is entirely limited: In reality, perpetrators are more often acquaintances; assaults can happen between people who identify with the same gender; cis-gendered women can be capable of assault; and cis-gendered men can be survivors.
Slut shaming as a form of survivor blaming, although usually targeting cis-gendered women, can target transgender persons or members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex or Asexual (LGBTQIA) community. In those cases, survivors are then blamed not only for their overt sexuality but also for not fitting into binaries enforced by heteronormativity.
Hypermasculinity and Assault
Hypermasculinity is an exaggeration of stereotypical male behavior emphasizing physical strength and aggression. Hypermasculinity is often a factor in acts of gender-related and sexual violence. Those who act in hypermasculine ways are more likely to engage in abusive behavior, and those who are perceived as hyperfeminine are more likely to be abused.
The notion of intersectionality recognizes how power in society stems from multiple and interconnected gender, class, and race-based subordination. Rather than a “single-axis” framework in which race, gender, class, and ability are treated as mutually exclusive categories of experience, intersectionality takes into account the overlap in identities that make discrimination and suppression more acute. Intersectionality is important when thinking about sexual assault, because it changes the experience of the assault and the survivors’ response (and often the response of those in positions of power), and because it represents a factor of risk of sexual assault. That is, some identities increase an individual's risk of assault, and the more of those identities a person claims or has placed on him or her, the greater the risk of sexual violence.