A new study confirms what we have known for a long time: sexual violence is a normalized phenomenon, especially among young women. In short, the study shows that young women make sense of the pervasive violence in their lives by framing it as normal, as no big deal.
Young women overwhelmingly depicted boys and men as natural sexual aggressors, pointing to one of the main tenets of compulsory heterosexuality.
The article discusses the findings through the lens of compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity – “traditional gender arrangements, beliefs, and behavior [that] reinforce women’s sexual subordination to men.” Importantly, it reviews the discourse on children, sexuality, and sexual abuse since the 1970s, demonstrating how such normalization of violence came to be.
Study methodology includes audio-videotaped forensic interviews with 23 girls seen for reported cases of child sexual abuse, an essential point about the research. This provides implications for sexual violence prevention, especially as it relates to the prevention of child sexual abuse. Indeed, to create communities free of sexual violence, child sexual abuse must be addressed, and vice versa.
Despite high rates of gendered violence among youth, very few young women report these incidents to authority figures. This study moves the discussion from the question of why young women do not report them toward how violence is produced, maintained, and normalized among youth. The girls in this study often did not name what law, researchers, and educators commonly identify as sexual harassment and abuse. How then, do girls name and make sense of victimization? Exploring violence via the lens of compulsory heterosexuality highlights the relational dynamics at play in this naming process. Forensic interviews with youth revealed patterns of heteronormative scripts appropriated to make sense of everyday harassment, violence, coercion, and consent. Findings inform discussions about the links between dominant discourses and sexual subjectivities as we try to better understand why many regard violence a normal part of life.
Hlavka, H.R. (2014). Normalizing sexual violence: Young women account for harassment and abuse. Gender & Society, 28(2), 1-22. DOI: 10.1177/0891243214526468