What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault refers to any instance of rape or involuntary sexual activity. Any of the following behaviors, if they are performed on someone without her or his consent, qualify as sexual assault:
• Genital touching;
• Sexual intercourse (including oral, vaginal, or anal sex acts);
• Child sexual abuse
• Sexual torture/humiliation
Many jurisdictions also consider attempts to control another’s reproductive or sexual health to be examples of sexual assault. If a man tries to get a woman pregnant without her consent (for example, by refusing to wear a condom, or lying about wearing it), or if a woman gets pregnant by a man against his will (by lying about her use of birth control), this is considered sexual violence.
Consent is the lucid decision to engage in sexual contact with someone else, made in the absence of any sort of coercion. Sex cannot be consensual if one of the people involved:
• Refuses to have sex;
• Is asleep;
• Is drunk, high, or otherwise intoxicated;
• Is in a subordinate position to the other or others (for example, if a student has sex with her teacher, or an employee with her employer);
• Is very young (most jurisdictions set the age of consent somewhere between 14 and 18);
Consent can be withdrawn at any time. There is no obligation to complete a sex act to which you have previously consented if you decide you want to stop. Anyone who makes you go through with it is guilty of sexual assault.
Although anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, there are certain demographic groups that are more likely to be victimized. Women, for example, are far more likely than men to be the victims of sexual assault, while men are more likely to be the perpetrators. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), roughly one in five women has been raped in her lifetime, and one in two has experienced some form of sexual violence other than rape. By comparison, one in seventy-one men has been raped, and one in five has experienced some other form of sexual violence.
Women with disabilities are at a particularly high risk of sexual assault. According to a 1994 study, girls with disabilities are four times as likely to be victims of sexual assault. Another study, conducted in 1991, found that 83% of women with disabilities will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.
Children are frequently victims of sexual assault. According to the US CDC, over 40% of female rape victims experienced completed rape for the first time before they were 18. Among male rape victims, over one fourth were ten years old or younger the first time they were raped.
There is also evidence of elevated rates of sexual assault among the LGBTQ community. According to the American Bar Association, 39.2% of same-sex cohabiting partners reported being physically assaulted, stalked, or raped; the rate among heterosexual cohabiting partners is 21.7%.
Who commits sexual assault?
Rapists are often depicted as anonymous, violent strangers, preying on women in dark alleys and street corners. Although this sort of sexual violence does occur, most sexual violence victims are assaulted by people they know. According to the US CDC, half of female rape victims were assaulted by their spouses or intimate partners, while another 40% were assaulted by acquaintances. Similarly, over half of male rape victims were raped by acquaintances, and only 15% by strangers.
Sexual assault by intimate partners often stems from feelings of entitlement. Perpetrators often believe they have a right to the bodies of their partners, and can justly force them to have sex. Marriage, for example, is often believed to entail conjugal rights, and heterosexual women are frequently told that they cannot refuse sex from their husbands. The reality, of course, is that any sexual contact that is not consensual qualifies as sexual assault, regardless of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.
There is evidence that sexual assault is significantly underreported and that few perpetrators are punished. According to the US-based Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), only 40% of sexual assaults are reported to the police, while only three percent of perpetrators serve jail time.
What are the consequences of sexual assault?
Sexual assault is a personal horror, a public health epidemic, and an economic sink-hole. The trauma of sexual assault manifests itself in a variety of physical and mental health outcomes. Victims are more likely to experience asthma, diabetes, insomnia, chronic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome. One third of rape victims will develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and 30% will develop clinical depression. Rape victims are four times as likely as non-victims to contemplate suicide, and over 10 times more likely to attempt it.
The stigma and trauma of sexual assault makes it more difficult to function in ordinary society. In Canada, it is estimated that 49% of women who are homeless experienced sexual abuse as children.
The costs of sexual assault extend beyond the personal; society as a whole suffers. One study estimated that medical services for abused women, children, and the elderly in the United States costs $857.3 million a year; another estimated that the total cost of domestic violence in the US was $67 billion, though this included non-sexual forms of assault.
How can sexual assault be prevented?
Women are often advised to avoid scenarios in which they are likely to become victims. The following are some common tips that are given to women to prevent sexual assault:
• Don’t get drunk in public;
• Don’t let strangers into your house at night;
• Don’t hitchhike;
• Don’t pick up hitchhikers;
• Park in well-lit areas;
• Walk with confidence;
As useful as these tips may be, they only prevent rapes committed by strangers. As previously mentioned, most rapists know their victims, and many are their victims’ spouses or intimate partners. Parking in well-lit spaces hardly helps you avoid rapists who live in your home.
The other problem with this advice is that it puts the blame on sexual assault victims, rather than on the perpetrators. Telling a woman to not get drunk in public in order to avoid rape implies that women who do get drunk in public and then get raped are responsible for their own victimization. No one has the right to force someone else into having sex, no matter how drunk the victim is.
For this reason, advice on sexual assault should always focus on the perpetrator. Parents and schools should teach children the definition of consent and explain that non-consensual sex is never justified. Marriages and intimate partnerships should be portrayed as relationships between equals; the notion that they entail the right to sexual intercourse must be clearly rejected.
Victims should also be encouraged to report their experience of sexual assault, and to name the perpetrator. Because the perpetrators of sexual violence so often know their victims, victims are often reluctant to incriminate them. It must be made clear that sexual assault is a serious crime, and that by reporting their assailants, victims not only protect themselves against future assault, but also protect other people.
Finally, there must be resources available to facilitate the physical and mental recovery of victims. Sexual assault victims who develop PTSD, depression, or other forms of mental illness must have safe, affordable, and easy access to the necessary counseling and medication. Victims who have contracted venereal diseases must receive the necessary healthcare. Female victims who become pregnant must have access to safe and affordable abortions, maternity care, and/or adoption agencies, depending on whether they choose to keep the child.
How can I raise awareness of sexual assault?
If you live in the United States, consider participating in Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Coordinated by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, SAAM seeks to increase awareness about sexual crimes and to teach individuals and communities how to prevent it. Held every April, it offers resources in both English and Spanish.
Residents of Ontario, Canada can participate in Sexual Assault Prevention Month (SAPM), held every May. Led by the Ontario Women’s Directorate, SAPM distributes information on sexual violence prevalence, prevention methods, and the definition of consent. Twitter users can tweet #SAPM to show their support for this event.