Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week: Addressing the Systemic Roots of Violence Against Women

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By Dr Julie Whiteman, Department of Marketing, Birmingham Business School 

Barely a day passes without a story of misogyny and its manifestation in some form of violence against women making headlines. Far too often these stories are – still – presented as isolated events, often attributed to industry and/or character specific cases. In the past few days, I have read reports of research that Gen Z men are less likely to support feminism than baby boomers, turning instead to the likes of infamous social media shock jock misogynist Andrew Tate, currently awaiting trial for rape and human trafficking among other offences, as models of the masculine ideal. Ex US President Trump’s catalogue of sexual assaults are well known and appear to have no impact on the American public’s enthusiasm for his new election campaign. A quick scan of any news outlet will see column inches given to sexism, misogyny and its violent and destructive impact on the lives of women and girls across the world. And yet, amongst this apparent growing awareness and public condemnation of sexual violence against women and girls, not only is it persisting, reports of rape to the police are increasing and there is no indication that women feel any safer or less at risk.

Why? How can this be?

One possible answer is to stop framing sexual abuse and sexual violence as anomalies and to start addressing the integral role violence plays in heterosexuality, gender relations and sexual politics more broadly. Only once we can acknowledge what Kate Millet, writing in 1977, called the ‘curious ambivalence’ [1] to violence against women in our society, will we be able to truly make progress. I explore this in a recent paper [2] on the role of violence in music videos and discuss the implications of the normalisation of violence as part of heterosexual relationships, the continual reinforcement of male dominance over women expressed through representations of physical power and its symbolic use in reminding us of women’s place in the sexual hierarchy, the mouse in a game of cat and mouse. Building on this, I am now working on research that articulates and conceptualises the enduring and nuanced rearticulations of sexism, how it reshapes and re-presents itself as it meets and counters challenge, adapting like water in the precipitation process – the form changes but all the while it retains its key component.

Women from all walks of life, from all corners of the globe, rich and poor, will tell you stories of sexual abuse and sexual violence encountered, and measures taken to mitigate the risk of danger from sexual abuse and violence in everyday life. These stories will be individual and interpreted in different ways, some women will see as their responsibility, some will see it as a burden, some will barely event register the steps they take in their daily lives to manage their personal safety from male sexual abuse and violence, but the reality is that sexual abuse and sexual violence are a part of life for all girls and women at some point in some way. It may be in the home, in the community, in school, the street, at work, on holiday, or somewhere else. Whether it’s catcalling, slut shaming, unwelcome touching, or flirting, whether it’s taking measures to avoid or attempt to prevent it, experiencing it or dealing with the aftereffects, this is a concern that impacts all women and girls. And it’s absolutely not OK. But I also believe it absolutely will not fundamentally change until we all, as a society, are prepared to address the systemic and ingrained role of violence in heterosexuality and its broader impact on gender relations.

Academics working in this area have theorised that contemporary society presents a ‘conducive context’ [3] [4] for violence against women and girls. The enduring prioritisation of male dominance and linking of female submission with notions of an appropriate femininity and female sexuality uphold this. It’s Not OK. This week shines a light on a global movement of voices who have had enough of the prevailing ‘curious ambivalence’ towards sexual abuse and violence and together we shout, #ITSNOTOK.


[1] Millett, K. (1977) Sexual Politics. Reprint. London: Virago Press

[2] Julie Whiteman (2023) Unmasking the ideological work of violence in music videos: findings from ethnographic audience research into contemporary sexual politics, Feminist Media Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2023.2219032

[3] Coy, M. and Garner, M. (2012) ‘Definitions, discourses and dilemmas: policy and academic engagement with the sexualisation of popular culture’, Gender and Education, 24 (3), pp. 285-301.  DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2012.667793

[4] Kelly , L. 2007 . “ A conducive context: Trafficking of persons in Central Asia ” . In Human trafficking , Edited by: Lee , M. 73 – 91 . Cullompton : Willan Publishing .

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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