Cultures of Sexual Violence

Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Between 15 and 76 percent of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the available country data. Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships, with many women (ranging from 9 to 70 percent) reporting their husbands or partners as the perpetrator. Across the 28 States of the European Union, a little over one in five women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014).

I have never experienced such violence, however I have witnessed both sexism and violence in separate instances and know how traumatizing both can be. This lead me to take a longer look at the subject.


Human Rights Watch defines sexual violence as “an act of a sexual nature by force, or by threat of force or coercion,” and rape as “a form of sexual violence during which the body of a person is invaded, resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim, with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or other part of the body.” Sexual violence is a global problem, found in all societies, as UN Women statistics show:

  • Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.
  • The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation, with up to 45 percent reporting that the experience was forced.
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia (31.3 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 million). Violence and abuse characterize married life for many of these girls. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.
  • In the majority of countries with available data, less than 40 per cent of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort. Among women who do, most look to family and friends and very few look to formal institutions and mechanisms, such as police and health services. Less than 10 per cent of those women seeking help for experience of violence sought help by appealing to the police.
  • Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.
  • In the UK, according to the 2009 British Crime Survey, approximately 80,000 women are raped per year. Approximately one in ten rapes is reported, and only 6.5 percent of these result in a conviction.
  • In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence, mostly involving women and girls, have been documented since 1996: the actual numbers are believed to be far higher.
  • Between 15 percent of women in Japan and 71 percent of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • In 2012, a study conducted in New Delhi found that 92 per cent of women reported having experienced some form of sexual violence in public spaces in their lifetime, and 88 per cent of women reported having experienced some form of verbal sexual harassment (including unwelcome comments of a sexual nature, whistling, leering or making obscene gestures) in their lifetime.
  • Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States.

These statistics reveal many truths. Age is a major factor in this violence, as girls face a large share of the instances. Disability is another contributor: 34 per cent of women with a health problem or disability reported having experienced any physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime, compared to 19 per cent of women without a health problem or disability, based on data from the European Union.

Delving deeper, we can assess the cultures within a given country. Unlike the DRC, which has been at war for decades, the United States has seen relative peace for more over 150 years. The U.S. also has a stable economy and strong government functions. Yet, the U.S. still has an extremely high rate of sexual violence. Clearly, peace, wealth and democracy are not enough to solve this epidemic. There are deeper social, economic and political barriers to ending this violence.

Screenshot from The Hunting Ground showing sexual assault instances in universities across the United States.

Behind all of these statistics are the survivors – women (and men) who have faced unspeakable violence and pain at the hands of (almost always) men. Their stories are difficult to hear but even harder to acknowledge and do nothing about. The following documentaries, using the case of the United States, capture these stories and the reasons why rape and sexual violence remains part of cultures around the world.


Disbelief on Campus

Rape culture pervades universities across the U.S. This culture has been ignored by university officials for far to long, leading to terrible consequences:

  • 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault.
  • 35 percent of male college students indicated some livelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it.

On university campuses, as in other areas of society, survivors of sexual violence face a culture of disbelief. Victims are blamed for the crime, including chastising their dress or alcohol consumption. Routinely, survivors are met with doubt as to whether the crime actually occurred.

In The Hunting Ground, the issue of rape and sexual violence on university campuses across the United States is examined in painstaking detail. Directed by Kirby Dick and released in 2014, this documentary focuses on Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, two former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students who filed a Title IX complaint against UNC in response to their rapes while enrolled. The use of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases became a model for universities across the country.


The film touches on many troubling issues related to sexual violence against women, especially those young of age. Education is a central component of tackling this epidemic. Unfortunately, universities are often behind the times in recognizing this system of violence. In addition to the violent tradition of hazing, university fraternities–“male only” social organisations at colleges and universities–have been found perpetuating messages of violence against their female colleagues.

After a fraternity was suspended for their “Dads, We’ll Take it From Here” banner, an Ohio State University senior responded that their “motive is just to have fun, it is college.” For over 20 years, Bowling Green State University has seen similar banners including “We’ll trade beers for girls” and “Freshman girl training center” that advocate sexual violence against young female students. These are just two examples for one of America’s 50 states.

Routinely, survivors do not receive adequate attention and the crimes they report are seen as fictitious lies. This is a result of poor understanding and training by police officials, most of whom are men. In a 2005 survey for Amnesty International, over 1 in 4 respondents from the UK thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than 1 in 5 held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Similarly, more than 1 in 4 respondents said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than 1 in 3 held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say so to the man. In a 2010 UK survey, more than half of women questioned thought rape victims should in some cases bear responsibility for their attack. These findings are known as ‘blame culture‘.

A lack of policing to report and support services after the crime exacerbate the problem. The U.S. has shown a reluctance to act on sexual violence and rape. An investigation earlier this year found more than 70,000 rape kits have gone untested by police departments across the country. This is a public safety disaster. After Detroit processed a backlog of 11,000 rape kits, police identified more than 100 serial rape suspects. Because the survivors of rape are women and not men, it has been ignored for far too long. Money to test this backlog of kits won’t be enough to protect women. Police and the rest of our society need to stop treating rape survivors with suspicion and scorn and need to admit that rape and violence against women remains a part of our culture.


Pressure to Work

“You do it out of desperation. Not because you want to.”

Several women’s movements have fought and continue fighting for the right to access employment on an equal level as men. However, when women enter the workforce, they are again met with the issue of sexual violence.

In the two documentaries Rape in the Fields, released in 2013, and Rape on the Night Shift, released in 2015, as well as accompanying investigations, the joint effort between PBS Frontline partnered with Univision, the Center for Investigative Reporting and others to shine a spotlight on the nation-wide issue of sexual violence against migrant women in the United States.


Both films examine the issues of sexual violence and rape through the economic lens of low-wage work and the political lens of migration. Undocumented women have limited employment opportunities, which leads to the constant threat of termination or deportation by their supervisors–men with both physical and psychological power over migrant women–and, as documented, sexual violence and rape.

“Sexual violence doesn’t happen unless there’s an imbalance of power,” says William R. Tamayo, a regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “And in the agricultural industry, the imbalance of power between perpetrator, company and the worker is probably at its greatest.”


Rape in the Fields (Violación de un Sueño) tells the story of the hidden price many migrant women working in America’s fields and packing plants pay to stay employed and provide for their families. Farm labour is the most common form of work for migrants who come from south of border. It is also essential to America’s food supply and economy. It is estimated that at least 6 out of 10 of the country’s farm workers are undocumented (Southern Poverty Law Center).

The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes. The federal government estimates that 65 percent of all sexual assault and rape victims never report the crime. Immigrants, especially those who entered the country without authorization, are even less likely to complain, according to academic studies.

Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism reveals persistent peril for women working in the food industry. An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms.

At work, undocumented status makes workers especially vulnerable to abuse, as some employers and supervisors constantly hold the “deportation card”. For instance, if an employer is treating a worker unfairly, a worker who speaks up to their boss can be threatened with deportation. This significantly takes away their rights to stand up for themselves and advocate for their working conditions. Threats of detention and deportation add to the psychological stress of a job that is already unstable by its very nature, varying by season and location (almost half of all farm workers are “migrant” workers who travel to different locations to find work).

Hundreds of female agricultural workers have complained to the federal government about being raped and assaulted, verbally and physically harassed on the job, while law enforcement has done almost nothing to prosecute potential crimes.

In virtually all of the cases reviewed, the alleged perpetrators held positions of power over the women. Despite the accusations, these supervisors have remained on the job for years without fear of arrest.

Meat packing is another side of the food industry. Already dangerous to all workers, the processing of meat is another sector where migrant women face sexual violence. The legal research and advocacy group ASISTA surveyed more than 100 women working at Iowa meatpacking plants in 2009. An analysis of these surveys shows that 41 percent said they’d experienced unwanted touching, and about 30 percent reported receiving sexual propositions.


Rape on the Night Shift uncovers the sexual abuse of immigrant women who clean the malls where Americans shop, the banks where they do business, and the offices where they work. Another major employer of migrants is this type of low-wage service work.

But the way the problem has played out in the workplace largely has escaped public attention. About 50 people a day are sexually assaulted or raped while they’re on the clock, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Any statistic about sexual violence, though, is a farce–only a fraction of victims ever come forward to report the crime.

When they do, companies can hide complaints from the public by settling them secretly before a lawsuit is filed. The results of cases that do make it to court often are cloaked by confidentiality agreements.


The night shift janitor is an easy target for abuse. She clocks in after the last worker has flipped off the lights and locked the door. It’s tough work done for little pay in the anonymity of night, among mazes of empty cubicles and conference rooms. She’s even less likely to speak up if she’s afraid of being deported or fired.

Across the country, janitors at companies large and small say their employers have compounded the problem by turning a blind eye to complaints and attacking their credibility when they report abuse at the hands of their supervisors or co-workers.

In the janitorial world, ABM is the largest. It employs the most cleaners in the country and has a history of facing charges that it failed to prevent sexual violence. It’s among a rare group of 15 American corporations to have been targeted multiple times by the federal government for sexual harassment.


The janitorial sector is fundamentally broken. Before the 1980s, most businesses had their own janitorial staff. Then building owners and stores began outsourcing the work to cut costs. This created an explosion in contract cleaning companies. It has caused other abuses against workers, in addition to sexual violence.

To stay competitive, cleaning companies of all sizes have to keep prices low. According to what’s reported to the federal government, janitors earn about $25,500 a year. The primary expense is labor, so wages are the first place where they cut corners.

“The way you make money in this industry is to cheat because the profit margin is so thin,” said Stephen Lerner, who led the first national effort to organize janitors for the Service Employees International Union in the 1980s.

Janitors have claimed that they were forced to clock in using two different names to avoid racking up overtime, Lerner said. They say unscrupulous contractors call them independent contractors so they don’t have to follow labor laws. Segments of the workforce aren’t authorized to work in the U.S., a scenario that makes workers vulnerable to abuses and puts companies at risk for legal problems.

A recent study of 826 low-wage employees working illegally in San Diego County found that 64 percent of the janitors surveyed had been cheated out of pay or suffered some other labor violation. About one-third said they’d been forced to work against their will, and 17 percent of that group said they’d experienced some kind of physical threat, including sexual violence, according to the study from Cornell University and San Diego State University professors.

Corporations are benefiting from a capitalist system where the most vulnerable people (migrant women) are left to fend for themselves against managers who use their power to abuse and sexual assault with impunity. It is a hidden epidemic in the United States and all countries were a handful of human beings are seen as “illegal” and therefore without the right to access protection from and criminal prosecution against these perpetrators.

The issue of sexual violence goes far beyond the personal. Political and economic decisions determine whether the culture of sexual violence is given attention and whether survivors are empowered to come forward to demand their basic human rights. The economics and politics need to shift to encourage all people to have adequate, safe employment and protection under the law.


Alone on the Front Line

Many Americans are told that their military exists to “protect their freedom”. But what happens when the military doesn’t protect the freedoms of soldiers?

In another film by Kirby Dick, 2012’s The Invisible War, the issue of sexual violence inside the U.S. Military is brought to light. In 2010, 108,121 veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma, and 68,379 had at least one Veterans Health Administration outpatient visit for related conditions. Also in 2010, The Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000. However, these reports only resulted in convictions against 244 perpetrators.


The Invisible War features interviews with veterans from multiple branches of the United States Armed Forces who recount the events surrounding their assaults. Their stories show many common themes, such as the lack of recourse to an impartial justice system, reprisals against survivors instead of against perpetrators, the absence of adequate emotional and physical care for survivors, the unhindered advancement of perpetrators’ careers, and the forced expulsion of survivors from service.

Interspersed with these first person testimonies are interviews with advocates, journalists, mental health professionals, active duty and retired generals, Department of Defense officials, and members of the military justice system. The film also includes footage, often shot by the veterans themselves, which documents their lives and continuing struggles in the aftermath of their assaults.

Other past incidents of sexual abuse recounted in the film include the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, the 1996 Army Aberdeen scandal, and the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal. The Invisible War uses these examples to argue that the military has consistently made empty promises to address its high rate of sexual assault. These stories culminate with an examination of the previously unreported culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington.

In a 2015 report, Embattled, most victims of military sexual assault told HRW the aftermath was worse than the rape.  After reporting their assaults, they explained they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse by peers and supervisors, poor performance reviews, bad work assignments, loss of medals, disciplinary action – even courts martial and ultimately involuntary discharge. Many told us that they had seen what happened to other survivors and were reluctant to come forward to report their assaults. In fact, fear of retaliation is one of the major reasons rape in the military is still grossly under-reported.

When members of the US military report a sexual assault up their chain of command, they often experience terrible retaliation from other military personnel. Department of Defense surveys find 38 to 62 percent of sexual assault survivors who reported sexual assault described illegal retaliatory behavior.

2016 Human Rights Watch report illuminates the impact of “bad discharges” on military personnel who left or were forced out of the military after reporting a sexual assault. In response to public pressure the military has taken some steps in recent years to improve how it handles sexual assault cases. But almost nothing has been done to reverse the harm to veterans who reported sexual assault in the past. Like Liz, many lost much more than their military careers, and have no effective recourse to correct their records.

The survivors and advocates featured in The Invisible War call for changes to the way the military handles sexual assault, such as shifting prosecution away from unit commanders, who often are either friends with assailants or are assailants themselves.


Positive Change

Documentary films have power. Power to make change.

On February 26, 2015, one day before the theatrical release of The Hunting Ground, a bipartisan group of twelve U.S. Senators, accompanied by the film’s lead subjects, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The act, originally introduced in July 2014, would require universities to adopt standard practices for weighing sexual charges, and to survey students on the prevalence of assault. Signs that the U.S. government is starting to take action following two decades of inaction after passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

Actions are also happening at the grassroots level. Students are demanding universities become safe spaces, to become rape-free. A notable student action was Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved her carrying a 50-lb mattress to bring attention to her sexual assault at Columbia University in New York City after the perpetrator was found “not responsible”.

student protest

Thanks to watching Kirby’s film The Invisible War, some U.S. officials decided to take action.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta viewed the film on April 14, 2012. On April 16, 2012, Secretary Panetta issued a directive ordering all sexual assault cases to be handled by senior officers at the rank of colonel or higher, which effectively ended the practice of commanders adjudicating these cases from within their own units. In his 2014 memoir Worthy Fights, Panetta states that watching The Invisible War was one of the main factors that influenced him to take action on the issue of sexual assault in the military.

According to The New York Times, the film “has been credited with both persuading more women to come forward to report abuse and with forcing the military to deal more openly with the problem.” The Times also notes that the film helped spur the House Armed Services Committee to hold a January 23, 2013 hearing on sexual assault in the military. During the hearing, Rep. Mike Turner acknowledged the film for illustrating the hostility faced by many survivors who speak up or seek help. The Invisible War was again discussed during a Senate subcommittee hearing on March 13, 2013 in which lawmakers and military officials described the film’s impact on military training programs dealing with sexual assault.

Stories of sexual violence, although difficult for survivors to share, are helping raise the consciousness of societies all over the world and beginning to push citizens, businesses and politicians to make change. Men need to listen to these stories and do everything within their power to change the culture around sexual violence and rape. It can not be allowed and can not be tolerated. Primary schools and the media need to play a part in changing the narrative between boys and girls, men and women.

Universities need to be safe spaces for learning.

Migrants deserve equal protection, regardless of whether they have proper documents.

All workplaces, including within the military, need to have proper reporting mechanisms and support after an assault.

Sexual violence, in all forms, needs to end.

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