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.
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.
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.