Content note: this episode addresses sexual violence.
We’ve all been exposed to rape culture, but girls and non-binary youth experience it differently depending on who they are. We don’t always catch these nuances. We’re not always listening the way we should. With back-to-school season coming up, we need to talk about interventions. How are we going push for an end to sexual violence for all young people, of all identities and backgrounds?
Our guest Dr. Mythili Rajiva is associate professor at the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, University of Ottawa, which is on unceded and unsurrendered Alqonquin territory. Her areas of academic research include intersectionality, feminist media studies, trauma, racialization, sexual violence, girlhood, South Asian diaspora and identity. She is the principal investigator on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded project that examines landscapes of sexual violence in the lives of adolescent girls with a particular attention to the impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous girls’ negotiations with violence. She was also a recent co-investigator on another SSHRC grant, on the consequences of the mass rape of German women in the last days of World War II; and the rapes and forced impregnation of mainly Muslim Bosnian women during the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia. She is currently serving on the executive of the Faculty/Librarian Union (APUO) as Equity Officer. She recently published a co-edited volume (with Dr. Stephanie Patrick) titled The Forgotten Victims of Sexual Violence in Film, Television, and New Media: Turning to the Margins (Palgrave Macmillan May 2022).
They say that the earlier you address healthy relationships and consent at school, at home and in the community, the better. But children and young people aren’t all the same. When it comes to addressing sexual violence, are we doing a disservice by treating all girls the same way?
I’m Andrea Gunraj.
Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
I started my career doing gender-based violence prevention work, a long time ago. I was so lucky. I got the chance to team up with smart young feminists to do workshops and trainings with other young people in many schools and communities. Our peer youth program was funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
One thing became clear to me – every young person you meet is unique. Race, physical ability, sexuality, faith, community, language -all these things make a huge difference to their day-to-day lives. You have to let them tell you what they need and want and experience when it comes to things like sexual harassment, dating violence, and discrimination. What they tell you might be a surprise because you don’t live their life. There’s no other way to do violence prevention right, but when we talk about girls and nonbinary youth at high risk of sexual violence in Canada, we don’t always catch these nuances of their experiences. We’re not always listening the way we should.
Sexual violence is back in the news and with back-to-school season coming up, we need to talk about interventions.
How are we going to push for an end to sexual violence?
How are we going to make sure girls and young people of all genders and identities are safer?
I had the pleasure of talking about this with Dr. Mythili Rajiva, associate professor at the Institute of Feminists and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her areas of research include intersectionality, media, trauma, racialization, sexual violence and girlhood. She is leading research on sexual violence in the lives of adolescent girls, with a particular focus on the impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous girls’ negotiations with violence. Her findings are so insightful.
I’m a sociologist by training and a feminist sociologist. I’ve been working in the area of girlhood since my peak. And specifically, I’m also a race scholar, so I tried to think about girlhood in terms of racialized girls, because a lot of the research on girlhood and the discussions in popular culture and policy have tended for a long time to be focused on white, middle class, straight, able bodied girls. And so thinking about girlhood in difference has been very important, specifically in terms of anti-racist practice.
You know, my early work on this was focused specifically on South Asian girls and South Asian girlhood because I’m a second-generation South Asian Canadian woman, so experiences around racism in adolescence and how those have affected or did affect South Asian women and affect South Asian girls.
I moved into the area of sexual violence specifically because I was working with a group of really amazing girlhood scholars who were doing a project on sexuality and schooling. One of the things we were doing was coming up with stories about experiences in our own girlhoods. One of the members gave a biographical story about witnessing what she felt was a sexual assault by a teacher against a student and how upsetting this was for her as a maybe 13-14 year old girl who wasn’t understanding what was going on but still very much traumatized by it. And I started thinking about what both primary, as well as secondary, experiences of sexual violence or living in a culture where we take for granted that jokes and boys will be boys kinds of behavior are accepted, how that affects girls, how that shapes the way that they become women, their embodied selves, the way they live in the world and whether they live always kind of, you know, worrying about their safety.
I’d already been doing some work on trauma ’cause I’d done some work on the Reena Virk murder here in Canada, and so those two things came together. Then I got a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to study sexual violence and girlhood. And one of the key things for me was that the research on violence against women tends to focus on women, the research on sexual violence and girlhood tends to focus on white girls, white middle class girls specifically and the Indigenous feminist research focuses largely on Indigenous women, which is great and important. But Indigenous feminist scholars like Sandrina de Finney, Natalie Clark, and Audra Simpson talked about how Indigenous girls get left out of this picture. And given the crisis around Indigenous women and missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit people in Canada and the recent inquiry, it seemed impossible to me, especially as a race scholar, to do a general project on violence against girls and not have a significant component of that be around Indigenous girlhood and the question of settler colonialism and racism.
I guess I want to push various literatures forward in terms of thinking about how we move away from this idea that we can talk about girls without saying which girls we’re talking about.
I have been really reflecting on the news about sexual violence and toxic masculinity and sports. I do sometimes feel we get shocked about it because we actually don’t make the connections. It’s not just hockey or sports we have to think about, right?
My reaction to the Hockey Canada scandal was here we go again.
I just thought it’s amazing over the last 10 years that I’ve been keeping track of this we have had these kinds of intermittent scandals. Universities have had scandals. My own university had a scandal with one of its sports teams. We had rape chants at other universities. We had incidents like the Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia, Amanda Todd suicide, the Stanford incident in the US, which was also about a swim team, the Steubenville, OH incident, which was high school and football players’ sexual assault and the recording of the sexual assault.
So, over a 10-year period, we have these incidents that blow up in the public and yet they continue to happen. You have to sort of ask yourself at this point what is being done to move beyond this idea of it’s a few bad apples.
It’s not a few bad apples.
It’s not an individual issue of these boys who are rapists or sexual assaulters.
It’s a culture of violence and misogyny and homophobia in sports, but in a broader North American context. In terms of sports, bonding, winning and aggression, come together around the idea of contempt for girls and women and contempt for queer bodies and, for example, gay men.
So, there’s this strange connection between homophobia and very, very profound misogyny. And often for boys and young men to prove themselves through hazing rituals or through bonding, they participate in these kinds of group activities that are often about gang assaults, proving your sexual prowess by being able to sexually assault a girl, but also proving your masculinity and your heteronormativity, you have to be a heteronormative, cis-man. And you do this by assaulting women.
Feminists talk about rape culture, the ways in which a whole range of both intentional but unintentional narratives, as well as behaviors and practices, allow for the continuation of rape culture. Constantly exposing girls and young women from the time they’re very little to the idea that they are sexual objects. They are to look pretty and to be sexy, but not to be sexual and to be available to boys.
And men, this happens through jokes. It happens through a lot of dismissing of certain kinds of problematic behavior in childhood and adolescence that then move into often more dangerous behaviors.
I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that while rape culture is a useful concept and a useful way of trying to understand how pervasive this kind of sexual violence and misogyny is, we have to keep in mind that for Black girls and women and Indigenous girls and women, rape culture is something that has existed for a really long time. We’re talking over 100 years for these communities and been taken for granted. So when we use the term rape culture, we also have to think about whether its development in contemporary culture is really about our fears around white middle-class girls being vulnerable.
Your research on sexual violence and the lives of girls is pretty fascinating.
Can you share some of your key findings and learnings with us now?
Things like toxic masculinity or stranger danger or policing of girls or blaming the victim are again very much about white middle-class girls and women experiences or fears. And what I mean by that is that toxic masculinity comes up a lot in the literature and it comes up in popular culture. But what we found when we were interviewing both white girls in focus groups and Indigenous girls in focus groups was that white middle-class girls that we interviewed talked a lot about various forms of toxic masculinity and jokes and having, you know, their body parts touched starting in grade school, having discourse around if girls have sex they’re sluts, whereas if boys have sex, they’re players and it enhances their reputation. Dress coding was another huge thing. So schools participating in the dress coding of white middle-class girls and telling them they look too sexy, which is a way of shaming them and making them responsible for potential sexual violence. Parents policing them.
All of these issues were very important, however, for the Indigenous girls, they did not have the same concerns. For them, toxic masculinity was very racially coded, so while they did have some complaints about Indigenous boys and men, a lot of what they said had to do with white boys, older white men. How they felt that as Indigenous girls they were constantly being insulted. Their peers would actually say quite horrible things to them about you’re going to be next because you’re an Indigenous girl, and that the idea of rape and potential murder of an Indigenous girl or woman was funny for their white peers. And this is very much about racialized, toxic masculinity.
So, it’s not to say that racialized men do not have toxic masculinity, but we cannot sort of make broad, sweeping generalizations about how all boys get to be boys, because that’s not what happens. And the historical and contemporary relationship between Indigenous females and white males is problematic and is tied into the violence of settler colonialism.
Another example is that you know feminists for a long time working in this area have suggested that the stranger danger myth really obscures dangers closer to home for girls and women in terms of boyfriends or dates or family members or teachers.
But for Indigenous girls, this is not the case. Stranger danger is a very real thing and some of the girls talked about being afraid when cars stopped, you know, on busy streets and asked them to get in and feeling a constant sense of fear from strangers. And that would be often older white men, because we know the the history and the context of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women. We know that this happens.
So to set aside stranger danger, as a feminist project and a myth, really doesn’t address the specificity of Indigenous girls and women experiences. Another area is family surveillance. So for white middle class girls, justifiably, they were very exasperated and often felt very upset because they felt that their families and siblings and again even schools were constantly policing their behavior, their dress, plus, the way they walked, girls talk about their mothers teaching them to walk with their shoulders back so they didn’t attract pedophiles, to cross their legs so that they didn’t look sexually available, to be careful about how they acted and that they couldn’t go out alone. They had to have people accompany them, and there was this fear that was inculcated in them from the time they were very little, that it was their responsibility and that their bodies were incitements to sexual violence. And it really bothered them and it made them feel weak and as if they were, again, always in danger.
Indigenous girls did not have that reaction at all. They felt very comforted by the fact that their family members and even community members were always keeping an eye out for them. The Indigenous girls talked about how they really understood why their parents were so worried because of the landscape of settler colonialism and violence against Indigenous girls and women, and so they were not exasperated by their parents or family members wanting to check-in. So this was, I think, a very significant difference that when we talk about parents and families policing girls, we can’t actually use that model for Indigenous girls.
They are aware, and their families are aware, that they are what scholars have called disposable subjects, and their lives have been constructed as not worth as much. And we know that the media constantly focuses on, you know, the missing white woman syndrome. So, the attention is always on white girls and white women. If they go missing or they experience violence, there will not be much societal reaction. They felt safer and they understood why their families did that.
These are some of the most significant differences that emerge. White middle class girls feared sexual assault. And they very much feared the blaming of the victim that they knew occurs right after that happens, that family, friends, society, peers will say
well, what did you do to deserve this?
What did you wear?
Why did you go to that party?
Why did you drink?
What did you say to him?
Even the most well-meaning of adults, and even peers tend to say, well, you must have done something because we are not yet at a place where we are willing to hold boys and men completely accountable for their behavior.
For the Indigenous girls, their reputations were less concerning to them. They had a terrible fear of disappearance and death. So not only were they afraid of being sexually assaulted, but they were afraid that the aftermath would be that that would be it, and that no one would care. Far from being worried that they would be called a slut or blamed for the violence that happened to them, they feared disappearance and then that no one outside of their families and communities would care that this happened to them.
And I think again, that is a very significant difference that has to do with racial privilege.
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That term you used – racial toxic masculinity -I think it’s so helpful. Given the broader reality an these nuances you’re talking about, what are some key things we can do to challenge sexual violence in the lives of young people?
I will quote one of my interview participants. One of them said, “teach your boys not to be creepy”. We need to make boys accountable and make boys hold each other accountable.
In order for that to happen, those conversations have to be happening early, starting in grade school all the way through high school. It has to be part of our educational curricula to talk about these issues and to push back on the notion that being a real boy or a real man has anything to do with misogyny or homophobia, transphobia. That our understanding of what is desirable masculinity is actually about kindness, respect for other people’s bodily integrity, respect for differences and a very much a live and let live approach.
I think that while everyday people and individuals can make a little bit of a difference, I think that it really has to start top down from government policy and educational changes. Thing we need to also stop blaming girls and we blame girls in really indirect ways when we teach girls to dress a certain way and we have dress codes in school to walk a certain way, to act a certain way, to always be monitoring their own behavior, we are teaching them that it’s going to be their fault if something happens to them. And this has to go, it just simply has to go.
In terms of Indigenous girls specifically, the history and the contemporary racism of settler colonialism has to be taught early in grade school. We have to stop pretending that Canada was a benevolent colonial power. We have to stop saying that the residential school tragedies were of the past and things are different now. One of the things that has emerged from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, as well as the horrific recent discoveries of the graves of Indigenous children and the Pope’s recent visit, certainly is the understanding of the torture and murder and breaking of Indigenous children and Indigenous communities, but what becomes less clear is the fact that, according to Indigenous scholars, there are more Indigenous children in child welfare and the social work system than there were in residential schools, which means that we are still pathologizing Indigenous families, we’re still taking children away from them and we are just continuing intergenerational violence. This has to stop. And so in order to teach white kids, white boys in particular, that Indigenous girls and women are not there, simply as objects, that are unworthy and there to be violated and even murdered, we have to start teaching them right from when they were young about the horrors of settler colonialism and the present-day effects of that colonialism, and in fact that Indigenous people are still battling for their sovereignty. There’s many reservations are like Third World countries, there’s not enough government support for Indigenous communities, there’s not enough societal support. We have a lot of racist stereotypes that still circulate about Indigenous communities that they are naturally violent or drug addicted or alcohol addicted, etc. This is blaming the victim at a very large scale.
My eldest son had a wonderful teacher in grade school who, she was a white teacher, but she was an ally and she taught them about Indigenous issues and made them participate in Indigenous events. And she told me and she came to my classes several times to talk to my students and she said, you know, kids are amazing. They have big hearts, and if you teach them early enough to love and not to hate and to understand what is right and wrong, they get it. The problem is that we as a society refuse to teach kids about ugly realities of Canadian society and we just produce another generation of young white boys and men who carry that settlor racism forward.
Alright, now what?
Dr. Rajiva makes the case for systemic change as well as individual action and culture change.
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