How Sexual Assault Becomes a Tool Of State Oppression During Protests


As the global economic crisis caused protest movements to spread around the world to places such as Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and New York, one very disturbing phenomenon seemed to join the tide of resistance: the prevalence of sexual assault in protest camps and during demonstrations. It has now become common knowledge that rape and sexual assault are often used as military strategies during times of conflict. However, for many it is difficult to imagine that camps whose participants aim to create a better world and a more just society would attract those who perpetuate sexual abuse and violence. When people think of social movements they tend to imagine groups of joint-smoking hippies congregating to dance for peace, loudmouthed suffragettes burning bras, and angry banner-wielding mothers fighting for their children’s futures; somehow, sexual predators seem to get left out of the equation. So why is sexual assault so prevalent during times of protest, and are social movements doing anything to fight this tendency?

The contexts in which movements for peace, economic equality, and social change can flourish would presumably differ greatly from contexts of violent conflict and war. Perhaps it was for this reason that rapes during demonstrations seemed, at first, to catch everyone off guard. However, as new cases of sexual assault continue to come to light, the similarities between these two contexts become more apparent. Sexual assault is being deliberately used to destabilize revolutionary movements and to threaten and intimidate participants. During times of social struggle when dominant power relations are being challenged, sexual assault is a way for opponents to reassert their control and to highlight the vulnerability of those opposing the status quo. It is meant to keep victims from participating as political actors and to humiliate and delegitimize the "opponent." As Amnesty International so aptly pointed out in its report "Lives Blown Apart," "Sexual violence is used to destabilize communities and sow terror."  This is equally true in local communities during times of war as it is in the communities constructed by social movements during times of social change and upheaval.

For activists around the world, the last few years have been rife with horror stories of sexual assault. Women in Egypt have been assaulted with knives and gang-raped in front of their families. In Cleveland, a 19-year-old was raped while sleeping in her tent at an Occupy Wall Street camp. From New York to Madrid, groping, harassment, and sexual abuse have been common occurrences. In each of these cases the common thread is the aim of perpetuating patriarchy and destroying the community's sense of security in public space. Since these incidents first occurred, additional protest groups have sprung up from within the movements, aiming to voice the grievances of those being attacked and to support them. Additionally, many protests camps have organized security units and devised strategies for dealing with rape and sexual violence.

As the Arab Spring movements, the Spanish Indignados, and the International Occupy movement grow and develop into sustainable social movements with a lasting impact on local communities, it is imperative that strategies for preventing sexual assault continue to develop from within. Many have voiced their concern that the grievances of victims were initially silenced due to fear of losing credibility and respect for the movement in the public eye. In order for these movements to reach their goals, however, activists must be able to walk (and camp in) the streets safely. While security needs differ from town to town and country to country, it will be a sign of the maturity of non-hierarchical movements when sufficient tactics have developed to protect participants under all circumstances.