If you haven’t experienced sexual assault yourself, you likely know someone that has. This crime is thought to be one of the most prevalent in the United States, but it remains the most underreported. And 90 percent of sexual assault victims are female, with reports of sexual violence in the transgender and gender non-binary communities rising in recent years as well.
Raising awareness about this difficult issue can make a big difference — because the more we understand the nuances of sexual assault and sexual harassment, the more confident we can be in speaking up about it, educating others, supporting victims, and taking preventative steps.
Let’s start by defining sexual assault. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it is “any non consensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.”
This could be anything up to and including:
• Unwanted sexual touching
• Coercion during a sexual act
• Attempted rape
Sexual assault involves forcing someone to participate in or submit to unwanted sexual behaviors. In many cases, threats of violence are used, but the force isn’t always physical. Emotional coercion, blackmail, manipulation, or psychological force can also be used.
It’s difficult to find accurate sexual assault statistics because so many people do not report these incidents when they occur. Victims have hesitated to come forward due to stigma and victim-blaming (this is one reason it’s important to emphasize and reinforce that sexual assault is never the fault of the victim).
On average, at least 433,000 people are raped or sexually assaulted in the United States every year, with those aged 18 to 34 making up 54 percent of victims.
Sexual harassment should be a part of any discussion of sexual assault. According to the nationally recognized organization Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), “Sexual harassment generally violates civil laws — you have a right to work or learn without being harassed — but in many cases is not a criminal act, while sexual assault usually refers to acts that are criminal.”
Typical examples of sexual harassment include:
• Unwelcome sexual advances
• Requests for sexual favors in exchange for preferential treatment
• Unwanted touching
• Receiving unwanted explicit photos or messages
Ending sexual violence starts with creating more awareness around harassment, assault, and abuse. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), which was first introduced by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) in 2001.
Over the last 20 years, the NSVRC has used the month of April to highlight the issue of sexual violence, raising awareness and sharing resources on prevention. Every year, the theme is slightly different, but the focus has always been on practical things we can all do to prevent sexual assault.
This year, the focus of Sexual Assault Awareness Month is online sexual harassment. Here are some important ways that we can build healthy online boundaries together and work to prevent all types of sexual violence.
1. Learn about digital consent. Consent is required online, as well as in in-person interactions. You can practice better online consent by asking permission before sending explicit messages or photos, and by respecting the decisions of others if they’ve asked you not to do something during your online interaction.
2. Establish community norms around appropriate online behavior. With so many of our interactions taking place online and through technology this year, we can ensure more positive interactions if we take the time to establish community norms around appropriate online behavior. Of course, you can’t police the internet as a whole, but these standards should be in place for schools, community organizations, and other groups that rely on a shared online platform.
3. Educate young people and take action. Young people need to be taught about healthy intimate relationships, consent, and sexuality — by starting these conversations early, we can avoid the shame and secrecy that sometimes surrounds these topics. Working to create safer environments (in schools, workplaces, and communities) is something we can all be a part of; the CDC (United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has resources that are a great place to start.
4. Empower girls and women. Having women and girls in leadership positions and giving them opportunities to fully participate in social and economic spheres creates safer environments for everyone. The World Health Organization has shared detailed information about the ways that improving gender equality prevents sexual violence against women.
If you’ve experienced an interaction that you would classify as sexual assault or sexual harassment, know that you are not alone and it is not your fault. Find additional resources at RAINN, or at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
At Carbon Health, we understand that sexual assault can come with so many emotions, all of which are uncomfortable and overwhelming. Our mental health specialists are here for you, to offer support and care when you need someone, currently offering virtual mental healthcare appointments in California.