Universal Phenomena or Cultural Variables

Rape and sexual aggression occur everywhere in the world. However, they do not occur to the same extent in every society, nor are they everywhere judged the same. Social and cultural configurations account for much of the variation. Generalizations are difficult.

Egalitarian Societies. In societies where resources are shared or accessible to able-bodied adults and where both sexes play important roles in the production of food and other necessities, sexual aggression is rare. Rape is reportedly rare among the Ituri forest foragers in Africa (Turnbull, 1961), the Kalahari desert foragers in southwest Africa (Lee, 1984; Marshall, 1976), and the Kaulong gardeners in New Guinea (Goodale, 1980). Rape is common in some tribal societies, especially those "faced with depleting food resources, migration, or other factors contributing to a pervasive sense that human beings are dependent on male efforts to control... natural forces" (Sanday, 1990a, p. 8). Among the Yanomamo and Mundurucu in South America, warfare is endemic and gang rape and the abduction of women in raids are common (Chagnon, 1997; Murphy & Murphy, 1974). Child sexual abuse is rarely reported for egalitarian societies. However, it is not uncommon for children to engage in sexual play, and for girls to be married and sexually active before they are 18 years old. Among the Tiwi in Australia, husbands instruct prepubescent wives in sexual techniques, deflowering them with their fingers and gradually moving on to full intercourse (Goodale, 1971). A striking variation is the Kaulong. The Kaulong believe sex drains a man's life force and is to be engaged in solely to have children—that it is females who aggressively seduce men into having sex with them. Should a man initiate courtship, it is considered rape, and in the past marriage or death was the expected result (Goodale, 1980, pp. 133-135).

Nonegalitarian Societies. Sexual aggression is common in nonegalitarian societies. Violence against women is part of power complexes in which men use violence and sexual aggression to display their masculinity and induct younger men into masculine power roles.

Victims include women, children of both sexes, and men in subordinate ethnic groups, classes, or other statuses who suffer sexual abuse directly or indirectly as men who cannot protect their families from those in power. Again, there are differences among societies in levels and acceptance of sexual violence that are not the result of inconsistencies in measurement or reporting. Rape rates in the United States are among the highest in the world, even when compared with other nations that keep good statistics. Rates are three times higher in the United States than in England, Sweden, or West Germany, and 5-10 times higher than in France, Belgium, or Japan (Ellis, 1989, pp. 6-7). Theorists associate high levels of sexual aggression with America's violent society. There are many kinds of sexual aggression, however, and it is noteworthy that workplace sexual harassment is common in France and Japan (Louis, 1994) where gender roles have been slower to change than in the United States. For many reasons, the sexual abuse of children is poorly documented and widely denied in many societies. Nonetheless, studies done in the United States show that the sexual abuse of children occurs in every group, including African Americans, Anglo-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and gays and lesbians (Fontes, 1995). Cultural variables exist in the family climates in which children can be abused, how the culture hinders disclosure, and how the culture plays a role in seeking or accepting social services or mental health assistance for victims and their families. Latina women, for example, enjoy more power at home than Anglo-Americans. However, Latina women are expected to be sexually passive and not to enjoy sex. Latina victims of rape and child sexual abuse are considered "whores" because they had sex outside marriage. Victim blaming silences most Latina victims (Fontes, 1995, pp. 41-43). Societal contexts also play a role. For example, an African American mother may not report the rape of her child because of her fears of police brutality against her group. Poverty makes participating in therapy sessions difficult or impossible. A child's vulnerability to sexual aggression may be increased—as with Asian children— by pressures to sacrifice their needs for their families and fears of reporting abuses by dominant persons within or outside their subculture such as elders or employers. Colonization and globalization bring cultures together, often violently and unequally. Cultures in which rape and wife-battery were rare see increases in violence and sexual aggression in the context of change and the violent edge of empire (Davies, 1994; Ferguson & Whitehead, 1992). The young migrate to towns to work in the new economies and find themselves in social environments where poverty and the absence of extended families encourage conjugal violence and new patterns of sexuality. Studies from Latin American countries show that more than 60% of rape survivors know their rapists— employers, boyfriends, spouses, or other family members (Cox, 1994, p. 122). Such women's situations are further complicated when their families force them to marry their rapists, an expectation in many Latin American countries. Domestic violence rates range in the vicinity of one in two women.

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