Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Content May Be Triggering for Survivors of Sexual Trauma. Recovery Is Possible – Seek Support.
Sexual assault impacts 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men. These numbers are staggering but what is most alarming is that sexual assault is an under-reported crime. Meaning the numbers are actually higher. In 2017 only 40% of rapes were reported to police, and in 2018 the number dropped to 25% (NSVCR.org).
The terms rape and sexual assault often conjure images of a violent surprise attack between a victim (usually female) and an unknown assailant (typically male). However, the reality is quite different. Research shows that "51% of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance," while "52.4% of male victims report being raped by an acquaintance and 15.1% by a stranger" (NSVCR.org).
Since the overwhelming number of sexual assaults occur between people who know each other, we must understand what sexual assault is and the definition of consent.
How is Sexual Assault Defined?
Sexual assault is a legal term enveloping any non-consensual sexual contact or behavior toward a victim for the sexual gratification of the perpetrator. Sexual assault includes attempted rape, rape (penetration), sexualized touching, and "forcing a victim to perform sexual acts" (RAINN.org).
How is force defined?
"Force doesn't always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics." (RAINN.org)
Consent = Communication
Consent is an agreement to engage in and establishes the boundaries of sexual activity. It should be clearly communicated and never assumed. It can be revoked at any time. In other words, there is no universal consent – "consent is an ongoing process" (RAINN.org).
Pornography, romance novels, movies, and our culture have muddied the water a bit regarding consent. Here's a bit of freshwater – no means no. It doesn't mean maybe or ask again. It is not "playing hard to get." In other words, No is not a Yes in disguise.
Biological responses do not indicate desire or consent (Nagoski, 2020). While women can and do respond biologically during a sexual assault, this particular fact is most often held against men. Attitudes like, "she couldn't have raped you if you didn't want it," are prevalent – and wrong. While desire is a product of our minds, our bodies respond to physical stimulus whether consent is present or not. Thus, biological responses are not consent.
Barriers to Consent
These are times when consent is not morally, ethically, or legally possible:
When a person is under the age of consent, i.e., a minor. (RAINN.org)
When the people are in different developmental stages, e.g., pedophilia, statutory rape (Nagoski, 2020)
When a person has significant developmental delays (Nagoski, 2020)
When there is a power differential, e.g., caregiver & developmentally disabled or elderly person, boss & employee, or if one person has access to resources in which the other person has a vested interest (Nagoski, 2020)
When a person is unconscious, e.g., asleep, intoxicated, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol (RAINN.org)
When pressure, threats, intimidation, or coercion are present (RAINN.org)
Healing from sexual assault is possible. Moving from a victim to a survivor requires a determined will and lots of support – professional and personal. If you or someone you love has suffered sexual trauma, I encourage you to seek out resources to help you in your journey. As a spouse of someone who has experienced sexual trauma, it is crucial for you to be educated, have support, and learn how to support them in the ways that speak to their hearts. If you have experienced sexual trauma, now is the time to take back your power, advocate for yourself, and seek healing. You are worth it.
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass & Laura Davis
The Courage to Heal Workbook for Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Laura Davis
Angela W Startz, MAHSC, CCLC
Mental Health Coach
Nagoski, E. (2020). Sex, desire & attachment: New science & strategies to transform couples' sex lives. PESI.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) (n.d.). Questions and Answers. https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics/questions-answers?question=All&page=0
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) (n.d.). Statistics. https://www.nsvrc.org/statistics.
Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) (2022). Sexual Assault. https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-assault
Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) (2022). What Consent Looks Like. https://www.rainn.org/articles/what-is-consent