Understanding Sexual Assault7 Min Read
A big part of what we do here at Beyond the Beez is dispelling myths about sexual wellness — and while sexual assault is absolutely not sex, it is ripe with false narratives.
While you’ve likely heard a lot about sexual assault in past months with the rise of the #MeToo movement, we’re going to start by addressing some basic terminology. That will help us lay the groundwork to understanding a variety of experiences, uncovering false ideologies, and discussing the effects of trauma.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is an umbrella term that encompasses unwanted sexual contact or activities. Examples include sexual touching, forcing someone to perform sexual acts, and attempting to or raping someone, just to name a few (4). While rape refers to a specific and nonconsensual penetration of someone else’s body, it’s worth remembering that rapists can and do target people of all genders.
Dispelling myths on sexual assault
Myth: Victims don't know their attacker
Reality: As Peggy Orenstein explains, “It's not the guy that jumps out of dark alleys... it's not what you see in the media'' (2). Roughly seven in 10 rape victims know their attacker (for example, a partner, friend, or family member). This number rises to nine out of 10 college-aged victims (1).
Myth: Race plays a factor.
Reality: Racist stereotypes that vilify Black men and infantilize white women have been common for centuries, but they’re rooted entirely in propaganda and anti-Blackness.. According to researchers, as many as nine in 10 instances of sexual assault are by abusers targeting victims of the same race (1).
Myth: A victim always fights back.
Reality: There are often a number of factors at play during sexual assault, such as shock, substance use, lack of options, and fear. These are all things that affect how people respond to situations, and it’s often common for victims to freeze up. This is why affirmative consent is a non-negotiable — anything that isn’t a hearty “yes” should be considered a firm “no.”
Myth: The victim was “asking for it.”
Reality: No one is ever “asking for it” unless they explicitly request sex. This idea is often fed by the myth of “perfect victim,” which typically refers to someone who dresses and acts conservatively. No matter what habit someone engages in — whether it’s walking home alone, going home with a romantic interest, wearing clothing that is revealing, or drinking — they never asked to be sexually assaulted, or to be victim-blamed.
Myth: Sexual assault is about sexual desire.
Reality: Often, an attacker or abuser is driven by a desire for power, control, or to prove their masculinity, given that the vast majority of attackers are men. That is why the patriarchy is often cited as an overarching theme that encourages these violations.
Myth: Only women experience sexual assault.
Reality: There are a few valid reasons why people focus on women when it comes to sexual assault discussions. For starters, the rates of sexual assault on women are far higher than those on men, and on average, male assaulters far outnumber their female counterparts. While studies vary on the exact numbers, about one in six men have been victims of sexual assault. Because there are certain stigmas about reporting these violations, men are often unlikely to speak out about their trauma.
Myth: The body never responds, or becomes aroused, during a sexual assault.
Reality: The body can recognize a sexual experience without actually wanting it — in fact, it’s common to experience wetness, erections, or even orgasms during an assault. (Remember, not all orgasms are actually pleasurable.) This is known as arousal nonconcordance, or the lack of overlap between genital response (the physical), and personal desire (the psychological). It can also be a means of keeping yourself safe.
The Idea of False Claims
Oftentimes, when a victim decides to speak out about an assault — or even take their abuser to court —many people still believe that the accuser might be making false claims. In one study, as many as 40% of respondents said they believed false claims happen often. This rose to about 50% for respondents who were college students (1). In reality, false claims about rape only happen between 2 and 8% of the time (1). In short, victims often have very little to gain in coming forward, so it’s worth believing someone from the start.
Is there a grey area?
The short answer is no: Many experts believe there is no gray area between sex and sexual assault. As Ellen Friedrichs explains in her book Good Sexual Citizenship, “Either someone has agreed or someone has not.” She equated this idea of a gray area to gender tensions, and specifically the idea that women are expected to say “no” to sex and that men are expected to convince them (2). This myth can be doubly harmful given that sexual assault victims may use the concept of a “gray area” to push away the painful associations of being a sexual assault victim.
Trauma can come in so many forms, and the longevity and impact of those painful experiences are different for everyone. Some common post-traumatic responses include dissociation and hypervigilance (3).
From a medical standpoint, dissociation is described as a “lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.” A common example is losing touch with your sensory systems (3). As Katherine Rowland explained in her book “The Pleasure Gap,” this dissociation can mess with a person’s very basic functions. “Sometimes I’d ask my patients to close their eyes and tell me what I had put into their outstretched hands... Whether it was a car key, a quarter, or a can opener, they often could not even guess what they were holding,” she explained. “Their sensory perceptions simply weren’t working” (3).
If you’ve ever been highly sensitive to your surroundings, you know how it feels to be hypervigilant. This symptom is associated with high levels of anxiety, and hypervigilant people often struggle to find a state of relaxation. Common coping mechanisms include compulsive eating, turning to drugs and alcohol, and avoiding social experiences (3).
Physical Health Effects
According to some researchers, rape is “the costliest of all crimes.” It can be connected to a myriad of health problems later in life including: “asthma, ulcers, migraine, stomach pain, anorexia, irregular or painful periods, yeast infections and irritable bowel movement,” Rowland notes.
She adds that being subjected to such violence, in general, is a form of chronic disease. “Trauma may be the buried culprit behind some of the most prevalent disorders affecting the population, including sexual problems,'' she posits (3). More research is necessary to fully characterize these consequences, but as we know, bodies remember traumas in a way that minds typically don’t. If you have an interest in learning more, I would recommend reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
As Rowland puts it, “If sexual violence exists in the context of a male-dominant social order, then nothing can truly change so long as that order remains intact.”
When looking for reasons underlying the prevalence of sexual assault, many people point to the patriarchy as the primary culprit. However, that often raises the question of personal accountability, and whether those two concepts can coexist. In Good Sexual Citizenship, Ijeoma Oluo explains:
“I do know this: every single sexual abuser is 100 percent responsible for their actions and there is nobody else to blame than the person who is choosing to violate another person. As I also know this: this entire patriarchal society is responsible for every single sexual assault that occurs. Both of these things are 100 percent true at the same time, and if we want to battle rape culture — if we want to finally end the brutality that so many women have faced for pretty much the entirety of history — we have to start addressing both of these realities at once.”
Moving forward, there are two key ways to make progress as a society:
- Taking personal responsibility to ensure the presence of affirmative consent in every sexual encounter.
- Making consistent efforts to support and create gender equality.
I’m adding one last note on affirmative consent, as this cannot be stressed enough: Affirmative consent means that “yes” is “yes,” and anything else is “no.” That means “I don’t know” is a “no,” not saying anything at all is a “no,” and “maybe” is not an invitation to convince someone to have sex with you. Keeping yourself accountable to a verbal cue, especially during new sexual experiences, is so crucial for keeping both you and your partner safe and happy.
- Friedrichs, Ellen. Good Sexual Citizenship: How to Create a (Sexually) Safer World. Cleis Press, 2019.
- Orenstein, Peggy. Girls & Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Simon and Schuster, 2016.
- Rowland, Katherine. The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution. Seal Press, 2020.
- Via @Ma_jones