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The true culprits of sexual assault and gender-based violence

Akeem Riley

Monday, May 10, 2021

I recently came across a video on social media that received mixed reactions from the public due to its seemingly innocent, yet arguably sexual undertone. The video was not captured in Jamaica, but I found it very relevant to us.

In the 25-second clip, a male child, who looks to be about two years old, was caressing the buttocks of a woman who had on a pair of tights. As this baby boy rubbed his hands down and across her buttocks it was met with laughter by two adult women — the one being rubbed and another capturing the moment on camera. The woman recording the video exclaimed, “Stop! I told you to stop doing that,” all while laughing. The woman receiving the rub just called him by his name and asked, “What are you doing?” She, too, was laughing.

I imagine that, even as some people read my account of this they might be thinking, “Di yout' man a star!” However, the thought that came to my mind was, what if this child had been a little girl, and the adult was a man, would people still find it funny?

There's a theory in behavioural psychology called operant conditioning by B F Skinner which explains how behaviours are reinforced through reward or the lack thereof. In the video, the child's behaviour was met with laughter and a 'limelight'. Despite the adults saying things like “stop” or “I told you not to do that”, the child understands laughter coupled with a video limelight as something good and rewarding. Now, if a male child is being rewarded for touching and caressing a woman's buttocks — despite hearing “stop” or “no” — what he's learning in that moment is that it is okay to do this and is likely to continue doing so with the expectation of similar reward. But what happens if, God forbids, as a teenager, he still thinks that it's okay to grope girls without their consent, especially if some of these girls reward him with a smile or chuckle? I can tell you that one possible risk is that, a few years later, we could see yet another adult male who genuinely believes he has the right to a woman's body, even if she keeps telling him “no” or “stop”.

Sadly, this is common in Jamaica and other predominantly black communities.

I could go on to talk about slavery and the systemic ramifications of the 'buck' tradition forced upon our forefathers and passed down through generations, the remnants of which are still evident in the way we approach male and female sexuality today, but I won't get into that. Instead, I want to look at the role that this generation has in mitigating the issues of gender-based violence and sexual assault that are ravishing our society today and have been for the longest while.

Now, I know victimhood provides a convenient escape from taking responsibility for our circumstances as a nation, while allowing us the privilege of venting our frustration and calling for anyone but ourselves to create the changes we so desperately need. Even now, as the nation grapples with reports of cases of gender-based violence as the current hot topic, we see 'citizen journalists' and some media outlets jumping on every opportunity they get to say, “Hey, here's another one; come look-see!” And even some politicians making noise to score political capital while failing to create any real solutions to this long-standing plague. The result of these, based on my observation, has been a general increase in tension between the two most fundamental and symbiotic groups of our species — men and women. I say this not to undermine the harsh realities of gender-based violence and sexual assault being faced by many (women and men alike); however, these issues are but branches on a tree, and if we hope to mitigate against them we must do so by tackling the root of the matter.

In my humble opinion, one of the root causes of the gender-based issues we're facing today as a society is not merely a matter of 'men vs woman', as many seem to think; rather, it is a matter of adults vs children. Like a blank canvas, every generation gets an opportunity to either copy and paste the traumas and poor child-rearing practices passed down from one generation to the next, threatening the very existence of the family unit; or break the cycle and spear the children of today from inheriting the maladaptive behaviours of the current generation of adults. Failure to do this will only see them growing into adults who will terrorise us tomorrow, perpetuating the cycle of violence and vulgarity that is so widely praised in our culture, and of which we have all become contributors or enablers, if not direct participants.

Just as it is unacceptable for a man to look at a 5-year-old girl, kiss her, and call her his future wife, so too should it be unacceptable for a woman to look at a 5-year-old boy, kiss him, and call him her future husband. In the same way we find it repulsive when men and women resort to violence and vulgarity during disagreements, so too must we refrain from resorting to violence and vulgarity when 'disciplining' our children.

Children live and become what they learn from us, and are therefore a direct reflection (more or less) of how we, as a society raise them, just as the current generation of young adults, good and bad, is reflective of the ways in which we were socialised by the generation before us.

So, let us all take stock of the way we raise our children today in areas of, inter alia, discipline, conflict management, communication, and the fostering of their empathic skills and emotional intelligence. The children are our future, and the only way to protect our future is by protecting the children of today, lest we all perish and the current calls to end sexual harassment and gender-based violence continue into our children's generation. And, if that happens, it will be nobody's fault but our own.

Akeem Riley is the president and co-founder of Kings' Space. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or akeemriley128@gmail.com.