How Should We Talk About
  Sexual Assault?

We Need To Talk About Sexual Assault -
Nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lives. As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, a look at how we should be combating the issue.

Most of us are familiar with the illogical chatter that arises in the aftermath of a sexual assault, particularly when the victim is a woman.

“What was she wearing? Why was she walking alone? Didn’t she have pepper spray on her?”

This kind of dialogue not only blames the victim, but also leaves plenty of gray area for perpetrators to be held blameless for such crimes. It reinforces rape culture.

This year, Have known people who use the drugs daily for months on end. Have known people who use the drugs daily for months on end. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVR), which sponsors an annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month every April, has chosen the theme “Prevention is Possible,” to try and change the conversation and remind people that preventing sexual violence is the responsibility of everyone – not just survivors of assault.

“As individuals, all of us have a role to play in creating safe environments,” says NSVR prevention campaign specialist, Susan Sullivan. Her top three tips for this include:

  1. Believing survivors and assisting them in finding resources
  2. Intervening to stop problematic behavior
  3. Promoting and modeling healthy attitudes, behaviors and relationships

Helping to reduce sexual assault may be as simple as challenging something you hear, or stopping something you see that concerns you before it becomes assault, explains NSVR’s communication director, Laura Palumbo.

“Intervention takes ownership off an individual when they are experiencing harm and they feel as though they have the option of help.”

It’s also important to remember that there are many forms of unwanted sexual contact, ranging from sexist attitudes and actions to rape and murder. Not everyone has the same limits and boundaries. A catcall may seem benign to one person and threatening to another.

The stats are sobering: Nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States have experienced rape or attempted rape in their lives, and nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men have experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point.

When you consider that 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police, precisely because so many victims struggle with feelings of fear, shame and doubt, it impresses the importance of community members taking an active role.

“Often there’s a disclosure [after a sexual assault] to someone the survivor knew before they had the confidence to make a report [to police], go to the hospital or call a hotline,” says Palumbo. “Lay people in the survivor’s life are likely the first person they’ll go to with the story, and that plays a significant role in whether a person will seek help later.”

Education also plays an important role in how people deal with sexual violence. While there’s an entire self-help industry around helping adults have better, healthier relationships, this kind of education needs to happen much sooner and might go a lot further if taught to kids and teens.

Laurie Gray, an attorney, author and teacher of criminal justice classes at Indiana Tech feels that good relationship skills, like communication and learning to care about your partner’s feelings, should be taught at the same time as sex education.

She also feels that teaching women to embrace their own sexual pleasure could have a positive effect on women’s self-esteem, which can help breed confidence in the face of threatening situations.

“There is no opposite of the word ‘slut’ that has positive connotations. What do we call a healthy adult woman who enjoys sex for pleasure or intimacy?” she asks. “Our whole culture, and life itself, depends on man’s pleasure for conception and women’s pain for childbirth and we seem to perpetuate that man’s pleasure is most important and women’s pain has to be endured. Maybe it has to be that way for childbirth, but not for sex.”

Indeed, equating positive moral character with virginity is one of the ways that victims are held responsible for their own assault. If only they hadn’t “wanted” sex, they might never have been assaulted, the faulty rationale goes. Gray takes issue with this.

“Virginity isn’t a medical state; it’s a social construct, and I think we have to move away from that.”

Furthermore, Sullivan makes the distinction that sexual assault is not just a women’s issue.

“Men experience and are impacted by sexual violence [too],” she says. “Men and boys can also play a powerful role in challenging a victim-blaming culture and promoting healthy masculinity.”

Gray agrees that any education to prevent sexual violence has to be equal across genders.

“If we’re not educating boys, then they’re turning to the internet and thinking that what they see as porn on sites similar to is what girls like. It can’t just start with teenagers, but from the time we start naming body parts and [children] watch us interacting with other people. We have to model healthy relationships.”

Palumbo feels that as a result of some recent public rape cases, like Columbia art student Emma Sulkowicz, who carried a mattress with her wherever she went in protest that her alleged rapist was not kicked out of school, pop singer Kesha’s public accusations against her producer Dr. Luke, and even the Bill Cosby case, have changed how we talk about sexual violence in the past year, much less the past decade.

She hopes that campaigns like Sexual Assault Awareness Month will continue to empower individuals across gender, age and experience to stand up against sexual assault and the sexism that allows it to thrive, in one way or another.

Writer Jordan RosenfeldJordan Rosenfeld is author of seven books. Her articles and essays have appeared widely in such publications as Alternet, DAME, GOOD magazine, Ozy, The New York Times, mental_floss, Pacific Standard, the Rumpus, Salon, The Washington Post and more. Follow her on Twitter @jordanrosenfeld.

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