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Sunday, November 4, 2018

What Sexual Assault Is Not About

This is a difficult topic to discuss.  However, it's certainly a whole lot easier to talk about than to endure, and so for all the folks I know that have endured sexual assault, and those who, unfortunately, will in the future, I want to speak out.  

We know that most of the men, women and children that have been assaulted don’t talk about those moments, or hours, of assault. There’s nothing new in the world about sexual assault; it’s been around for as long as the human race and I’m of the opinion that it’s about time we attempt to get real about it.

To begin, I hope to make sure we are on the same page and reading from the same playbook about sexual assault. I am writing today to emphasize just four main points, simple though they be.

First of all, no one is exempt from sexual assault. Neither race nor socioeconomic status, age, disability, nor one’s sex can provide immunity from being the object of sexual assault. As distasteful as this is to think about, this includes children. As a child protection worker, I met children as young as 4 years that had been victims. Later, while working with elderly, I met people as old as 85 that had been victimized. Most of my life as a medical social worker has been spent working with children and adults with disabilities. Sexual assaults occurred in those persons’ lives too. In fact, research suggests that people with disabilities are twice as likely to have been victims of sexual abuse as able bodied folks.

Although we may tend to think of women and girls first, when we talk about sexual assault, we know that boys are also victimized. Stories from the Catholic church have shown us that boys have long been abused, too. And unlike Jacob Wetterling’s story of kidnapping, assault and death, most victims do know their perpetrators. The vast majority of perpetrators are never punished or even charged with assault. And If we, the rest of us, cannot accept the truth that sexual assault exists, not as a rarity but a frequent occurrence, how are we ever going to be able to talk about sexual assault. And if it’s something that cannot be spoken of, then, I contend that silence makes perfect victims of us all. And tacit accomplices.

My second point is this. Many people reading this will tell themselves that they do not personally know anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You are undoubtably incorrect in that belief. I don’t care who you are—unless you have been living as a hermit in a cave, you do know someone who has been sexually assaulted, whether you realize this or not. I ask you to think carefully. Think of your immediate family members. Think of your aunts, cousins, your nieces, nephews, grandmother, your brother and sisters and your own parents. Think of all the people you have known in your lifetime. There are stories there that you have likely never heard. People that we know and know well have been scarred by sexual assault at some time during their lives though we may not ever hear their story from their own lips.

Over the years, my mental health clients have told me in anguishing fits and starts, their stories of sexual assault; whether as children in their own homes or churches, as adolescents at a party, or with romantic encounters gone south. They came to therapy with memories that still plagued them years after the events occurred They came surprised to find themselves with feelings and fears that they had thought were successfully shoved aside years earlier. They came reporting that old memories had been resurrected along with milestones in their lives— moving away to college, starting a new relationship. the death of a parent or the abuser, the birthday of their own child, or a new sexual partner, to name a few.

They often came weighted down with the burden of having protected the identity of the abuser for years--the college student whose father was a pastor back home, the young woman with mild cerebral palsy who believed that she was selected for assault by her teacher because of her disability, the young man who was assaulted by his middle-school track coach, the middle-aged woman who because of chronic back pain stood throughout hours of therapy and all but shrank into the wall as she wept through the telling of her story. The tears aren’t all about the incident of assault itself, but about the current inability to trust another person. They often report they cannot allow themselves to relax their guard enough to be intimate with another person. They report feelings of deep inadequacy, of loneliness, of living outside the circle of “ordinary” people.

Thirdly, if there is only one thing that you take away from this narrative, let it be this. Sexual assault is not about the sex act. Sexual assault is not about enjoying one’s sexuality. It is about power. It is about one (or more) person(s) of greater size, strength, authority, or mental capacity taking advantage of someone possessing less of one or all of the above. It's about having control of someone else. It's about using that size or strength, authority or mental capacity to do with that person's body as desired, without the permission of the other, without regard for the impact on the other. Sexual assault is an avenue to assert dominance, to massage a bruised ego, to prove superiority, to demonstrate hatred for the female gender, to cause another pain as retribution, to establish social standing within a peer group, to control the behavior of another person. It is a way to exact fear and compliance in another person or group.
Sexual assault does not occur because the victim “dressed too provocatively”, nor because mixed signals were given or she “changed her mind.” It’s not about the perpetrator being "oversexed," having too much of a sex drive, nor being too drunk to know better. And it is certainly not about “boys will be boys.” Those are all excuses that have been offered to justify behavior after the fact. Those are all ways in which we have collectively attempted, unwittingly or not, to place blame upon victims for bad things happening to them.

My fourth point, sexual assault does not require that intercourse have taken place. So, does this mean that having your butt slapped, or being rubbed up against (frotterage) in a crowd, or being “felt up”, pawed, grabbed, pinched, kissed, bitten, restrained, mouth gagged, neck squeezed, lewd things muttered into your ear, threatened, clothing torn, undergarments snapped--that all of these are sexual assaults? Yes, that is exactly what that means. Sexual assault also includes being forced to watch or to participate in sexual gratification of another, whether by physical force or by coercion through threats of harm or humiliation. These are all sexual assaults.

There's a phrase that I’ve heard used sometimes which actually diminishes the victims' authority to label a sexual assault for what it is. The phrase sounds innocent enough but it masks the reality of what occurred. The phrase goes something like this, ”He (or she) tried to... (take advantage of, feel her up, get in her pants, etc.)” Do you see? When we say "tried to" when what we really mean is that the perpetrator did do some of those things, we are diminishing the reality of an experience that was traumatic, or at the very least was frightening, humiliating or anger producing.

I do not mean to imply that I an an expert in the field of sexual assault and treatment. But I do mean to imply that I don’t have to be, nor do you, in order to be able to hear and to believe the reality of assaults. I beg you, if/when you hear of a person’s story of assault, do not automatically go to that suspicious place in your head where you immediately wonder if the victim is telling the truth. Please, please do not add more onto the assault. Please.

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