Power and Violation: What My Health Class (and the World) Gets Dangerously Wrong
January 14th, 2019
A few weeks ago in health class, I walked into the classroom to find on the chalkboard the words: “What makes you feel violated?” Beneath, my teacher had listed four modes of violation: physical, verbal, visual, and by written word.
My gut reaction was mixed. On the one hand, my school’s health curriculum has long been deeply flawed. Our health department has worked, to varying degrees of effectiveness, with LGBTQ members of the student body to correct a remarkably heteronormative treatment of gender and sexuality. Its coverage of stress, early-grade sexuality, and consent are an object of scorn and criticism by many of my classmates. I myself have witnessed not a few classes that I found passively inadequate or actively problematic – from an episode of DeGrassi Junior High centered around eating disorders whose shallow portrayal of a girl with anorexia was left without commentary to a picture book read to seventh graders which euphemistically described sex as very close hugging.
This year’s course is focused on Gender and Sexuality. The curriculum the health teachers use checks all the boxes - including addressing issues like sexual harassment and assault - but usually fails to provoke meaningful and constructive discussion about the underlying problems that make us have to tackle this kind of violence in the first place. It’s a harsh reality that girls have to take measures to protect themselves from sexual violence, but it doesn’t mean we should treat abuse as an inevitability. If we think of it as a reality so unchangeable that it’s not worth analyzing and pulling out by the roots, that’s what it’ll become.
So I had plenty of cause to doubt the quality of the lesson before it began, but all the same, I hoped that it might be an opportunity for a constructive discussion, a confrontation of the varying assertions of sexual power that perpetuate a society permissive of sexual assault. I hoped so because my school (all schools, really, and all of society) so desperately needs such a lesson. We need such a lesson because a quarter of girls in the U.S. will be sexually abused before they turn 18, because every day three women in the U.S. alone are killed by intimate partners,(1) because Brock Turner served just three months in prison(2) and because not a month has gone by where I have not heard a rape joke in the halls of my high school.
What we did not need was the lesson we subsequently got. In fact, the class went beyond a neutral irrelevance - it ended up teaching us, I think, exactly the wrong lesson.
My teacher opened the lesson by talking about how the word “violation” tends to make us think about the most extreme versions of the word, like rape or assault; instead, we should think about other, less dire manifestations. That sounded reasonable to me, albeit a little odd - we hadn’t yet addressed rape or sexual assault besides listening to a student presentation on false accusations (yes, really) and reading the New York State sexual assault laws without much commentary. It was as if my teacher was suggesting that we (a liberal, feminist school on face level, full of students so “gifted and talented” that they couldn’t be ignorant and were just too woke to be rapists!) had moved past the necessity of confronting and talking about rape itself, and now just needed to weed out smaller instances of harassment, some which weren’t even sexual in nature. Obviously, we haven’t. Any collection of statistics on rape and sexual assault would show you that - not that we’d looked at those in class.
Without further preamble, my health teacher split the class into four groups, each corresponding to one of the items listed on the board. She gave no definition for “violation,” — although we could safely assume, I think, in a course focused exclusively on gender and sexuality, that we were thinking about sexual violation—nor did she invite ideas on the topic from the class before beginning the activity. So, without much to guide us, we split up and began to brainstorm how someone could feel “violated.”
When we came back together, each group read out the list they had created of verbal, physical, visual or written-word violations. Many of the items were serious and thought-through – for example, slurs, groping, hand gestures, or dispersing nude images without someone else’s consent. Others were less serious, and less relevant. But the items were read again without much commentary; the teacher would just interject at points to add her own ideas or affirm those of the class.
As the class wore on, the teacher - and the class - struck out again and again. One of my male classmates, predictably, undid the first few buttons on his shirt before pronouncing that some people could feel violated by really low v-necks. Right afterwards, another boy raised his hand to say that he had felt violated by our art final last year. My teacher was no help. Not only did she leave these comments unchallenged and sometimes affirm and expand on them, she added her own counterproductive examples. A thoughtful item on one of the lists of possible violations became a prompt for my teacher to tell us about her old colleague Patty, a “close-talker” whose proximity had made everyone feel violated.
Choosing to let discussion go, for the most part, unmoderated, is in line with what seems to be is my school’s health department’s general philosophy: leave it be. While uncensored discussion is important, there’s a difference between giving every student (or, say, online commenter? Journalist? White supremacist?) a chance to speak, and rationalizing and amplifying every comment made, no matter how misguided, misinformed, disingenuous, or potentially harmful. The health teachers’ jobs are to inform and to facilitate, not to allow damaging misinformation to run wild. My class was a big group of high schoolers in their last period of the day - inclined to disingenuity and likely to say the easy thing, out of discomfort or exhaustion. The teacher should have recognized that. By not doing so, the class devolved into exactly what we could expect of a bunch of tired teenagers - a jokey listing of the smallest offenses, the least thorny cases, which now stood in for the big, useful concept of violation.
Imagine someone didn’t understand the concept of “crime” and it fell to you to define by examples. You tell this person that crime was forgetting to pay a parking meter, jaywalking, jumping a turnstile, and murder. Is this an accurate depiction of crime as a whole? No - the person will walk away with a perception of crime swayed toward the less harmful side of the spectrum. Of course, it wouldn’t be accurate (although it might be more helpful) to describe crime as murder, kidnapping, arson, and reusing coupons. In noticing that we tend to think about the most extreme cases of violation, my teacher was trying to point this out. But the solution to an understanding of a problem that’s skewed towards its most drastic manifestations is not to do a one-eighty and refocus us on its least extreme examples. What would be most helpful, instead, would be to redirect our attentions to what ties all of these examples together, which, in the case of violation, is power.
Violation, in the end, all comes down to power. The word itself is closely tied to a different word, violence, one that is even more clearly connected to power – the power someone exercises over someone else’s body or emotions; the power to hurt. Violation itself has more to do with a transgression, about breaking rules, about breaching the boundaries of someone’s physical or emotional autonomy. And it does so by exploiting a power imbalance upheld by society of the past or present.
This holds true in many contexts – violation can leverage a history of racial or religious power, for example – but of course this was a gender and sexuality class, and we were talking sexual violation. When someone forces you to have sex with them – or in any way uses your body or its image without your consent – they are asserting their power to control your body. When someone gropes you, again they are asserting their power to control your body. Any form of harassment is, at its core, the manifestation of the entitlement some men feel to use, manipulate, push aside or objectify a woman’s body, whether by catcalling, propositioning, making obscene hand gestures, etc. The very same power that makes men think they can talk over women, comment on their bodies, and take up unwanted space physically or psychologically also makes them think that they can have sex with whoever they want to, regardless of consent. Violation in all its forms is an assertion of one person’s power over another – often a gendered power, often a sexual power. This is the definition our class desperately needed at the start of the period. But my teacher didn’t offer it, either because she wrongly assumed we would arrive to it independently, or because she herself thought that violation was not too different from annoyance, from inconvenience, that it was neutral - a misconception that was exactly the problem of the rest of the lesson.
With this kind of definition, we could have avoided deep and harmful misconceptions that a class absent of any discussion of the reality of power and sexism not only permits but inadvertently encourages. First and maybe most importantly, we could have stopped the delegitimization of real harassment by comparing it to annoyance. Giving voice to claims like my classmates’ - that difficult tests or v-neck shirts were examples of violation – or calling close-talking “violation” puts harassment on the same plane as day-to-day inconveniences, when in fact harassment, in carrying the weight of literally centuries of oppression against women, is much, much more than a little bother. I take no issue with recognizing milder instances of violation, but there is a problem with calling an action that leverages none of the same power-related weight a violation, when it has none of the impact that a violation of any scale would have. Thinking of harassment this way makes it easy to disregard and excuse - which, because small offenses create the precedent and base for larger ones, makes rape and assault a lot easier to excuse, too. This problem is made worse by the already too-common perception that movements like the #MeToo campaign and more broadly the concept of consent as a whole aims to impose a set of arbitrary regulations on boys’ sex lives. If violation is just an annoyance, then who the hell cares?
Violation is not just an annoyance, and talking about it within the context of power and oppression would make that clear. Women’s bodies have been objectified, possessed, and abused for centuries. Sex has been used as a tool for exercising power, from politics to the household, for as long as we’ve had to struggle over it. Now, even after multiple waves of the feminist movement and real strides forward, rapists enjoy broad impunity and more women have died from domestic violence since 9/11 than U.S. soldiers have been killed in the subsequent “war on terror.”(3) A violation of any scale is a little, concentrated reminder of the power that men have had and continue to have over women’s bodies. It is a little salutation, like saying - hello, I am a man, and I can do what I like with your body because nobody ever has and likely nobody ever will stop me. No, I don’t think that’s too similar to a pesky art history exam.
Walking out of this health class, I felt deeply that something was more than a little off about what I had just participated in. It took me a long time to be able to articulate it like this, but it was upsetting from the start - the sense that a space theoretically committed to preventing sexual violence had not only missed the chance at a constructive discussion but had really done some damage.
My school’s health curriculum needs to be revised to fix its treatment of sexual assault and harassment. To start, the teachers can speak up about comments that clearly miss the point or contribute to a misunderstanding of the topic they’re trying to teach. The health department at my school has been faced with a lot of criticism in its time and has made a lot of quick changes to adapt to students’ demands and needs. In the process, I think, it has become scared. Scared of saying the wrong thing, scared of being problematic. Scared of taking too much of a stance on one thing or another. This is why my teacher refuses to use male pronouns in speaking about perpetrators of sexual assault even though men make up the overwhelming majority of assaulters. This is why my teacher will not tell my classmate that v-neck shirts are not violations. And, on the other side of the coin, this is why my teacher will leave uncriticized student presentations that misrepresent the prevalence and severity of false rape accusations. The health teachers think that they cannot take a side, they cannot shut a student down. But stepping back and allowing discussions to go unmediated allows the ignorance and misunderstandings that we as students hold to take center stage, and stay there.
But beyond deciding to better facilitate class discussions, the health department needs to take active steps to actually teach us about sexual assault and its causes. By discussing power and sexism as the root of all forms of violation and sexual violence, we can move past thinking about harassment and assault as an inevitability that can only be combated (somehow?) by a tentative acknowledgement of its existence. Instead of placing the responsibility on the victim - as we are so prone to do in conversation and in the media - we can not just give girls handouts about how to keep themselves safe from abusive relationships, but actually get boys thinking about how certain actions support a culture of sexual entitlement and violence, and maybe stop some of them from becoming abusers themselves.
At my school, we’re lucky to have ample time allotted for sex ed. We have the opportunity as a school to start discussions about harassment and assault that exemplify the discussion we ought to be having in the real world - a conversation that, above all, starts with a critical look at the role of gendered power in allowing and supporting sexual violence. It might be a long shot, but we’ve got to try. We’ve got to do better than this.
Before publishing this piece, I reached out to my health teacher with my concerns about the lesson described here and other facets of the course. She has been very receptive to my thoughts and has shown a willingness to take these criticisms into account in future lessons on the same theme.
1. https://www.politifact.com/california/statements/2018/feb/19/jackie-speier/fact-checking-sad-statistic-number-women-murdered-/ - exact statistic varies in different reports, as this article mentions, but the impact of the statement remains the same.
3. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175641/tomgram:_rebecca_solnit,_the_longest_war/ - which cites, in turn: https://www.upworthy.com/dont-believe-in-the-war-on-women-would-a-body-count-change-your-mind?g=2&c=ufb1 . I included both because I strongly encourage anyone reading this article to next direct your attention to the first one - by Rebecca Solnit - that I cited.