WHITNEY: How to change the culture of violence

I looked a woman in the face last week as she told me about the time she was raped on her way home from work.

She spoke bluntly and honestly, in the matter-of-fact way one might recount any other disappointment they've encountered in life. It was what it was — something that happened, something she'd moved beyond. However, her voice began to raise as she recalled a time a friend of hers blamed a girl they knew who had been sexually assaulted, claiming "she was asking for it" because she was known to dress provocatively.

"No one asks for this, I told her. No one asks to be raped," the woman told. "I didn't ask to be raped. I was just walking home!"

I believed her, and I believe exactly that — no one asks to be raped or assaulted or harassed, and no one deserves any of these things.

Yet, after an unplugged weekend away, I came home to read headlines of yet another mass shooting, this time with a gunman whose fire was allegedly fueled by rejections of women who weren't interested in dating him. New York Post took it one step further on its front page, using a picture of the only woman named in the video manifesto given by the shooter and labeling her his "killer crush."

And in our own paper this week, we're covering yet another violent sexual assault in our community. In a town where we enjoy the "small town" atmosphere — some people still leave their doors unlocked and windows open at night — we could write about sexual assault in this community weekly.

Sad? Absolutely.

Startling? I hope so, because there seems still to be the idea that "it doesn't happen here."

In the midst of all this, I got an email from a friend regarding the shooting at University of California-Santa Barbara, the anti-women rants the shooter posted to YouTube hours before the incident and the culture of rape that's simmering not so deep below the surface of the culture of our country. She asked, "What can we do about it?"

It's too simple to say parents need to teach their children that rape (or violence in general) is wrong, because I don't think there's anyone out there teaching their children the contrary. At least not explicitly.

I've heard people say the lessons we teach our children as we prepare them for the real world are warped, that we're teaching "Watch your drink at parties to avoid getting drugged," rather than, "Don't drug people." But we do teach that, don't we? When our kids get into playground shoving matches, we teach them that it's not OK to hurt others. The lesson should carry over if we continue to reinforce it.

So what can we do about changing this culture of violence, of rape, of shifting accountability from aggressor to victim?

A lesson in empathy might be in order. We can tell our children not to hurt, but we need to remind them of what it means to be hurt too. Remember when Andy shoved you on the playground? It hurt your feelings, and it hurt your wrists when you broke your fall. That's why we don't shove people. That's why we don't pull the cat's tail. That's why you shouldn't call your sister names.

And when tragedy does befall someone you know, don't be so quick to distance yourself from them in an effort for self-preservation with remarks like, "I wouldn't have put myself in that position," or "She got what she deserved." We live in a world where you can be assaulted while walking home from work or kicking back in your dorm room.

It all seems too simple, honestly. And I don't have an answer for my friend who wonders what we can do to change this culture of violence, but I think we can start here. Teach your children empathy and compassion, and model respect for others. Let's see what happens then.

Whitney is the associate editor of the Pioneer, and she oversees the Parenting page. If you have something you’d like to see on this page each Friday, email her at whitney@pioneergroup.com or call (231) 592-8386.