What is sexual assault?
For many people, sexual assault and rape mean the same thing—but the reality is that sexual assault includes many forms of sexualized violence.
Sexual assault means forced or coerced participation in any type of sexual activity, ranging from unwanted kissing or touching to forced sexual intercourse.
Sexual assault is an act of power and control in which the victim may be coerced to participate or forced through violent actions or words.
It doesn’t matter if the victim was drinking. It doesn’t matter if the victim was wearing a dress (Or sweatpants! Or a bathing suit!). It doesn’t matter if the victim was flirting or accepted an invitation to have dinner.
Sexual assault is a crime, and in the same way that no one “asks” to have their house burglarized, no one “asks” to be sexually assaulted.
But sexual assault is about sex, right?
Wrong. All forms of sexualized violence are about feelings of entitlement, power, and control being expressed in a sexualized way.
There is consensual sexual activity, and there is sexual assault. In the most extreme, there is sex (which is consensual and enjoyed by the people involved) and there is rape (which is not consensual and enjoyed only by the rapist).
Saying that sex and sexualized violence belong to the same category of activities is like saying that tasting food and choking on it are both enjoyable.
But it’s not like this will happen to me. I can protect myself by locking my door and being careful when I’m out at night?
Wrong again. People mistakenly assume that most sexual violence is perpetrated by strangers—that “man in the bushes”. The reality is that you are more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone you know—a spouse, a date, a classmate, colleague or other acquaintance.
Well, there are a lot of mixed signals out there and it’s not always easy to tell if someone is into it—right?
Nope. There are a lot of ways to figure out if your partner(s) is into whatever sexual activity you’re engaged in, and the easiest way to be sure is to ASK—which means: get consent.
So… is sexual violence a systemic problem?
Absolutely! Sexual violence is promoted and supported by rape culture. Rape culture is the images, language, laws and other phenomena that we see and hear every day that validate and perpetuate rape.
Force: Upsetting Rape Culture explains that rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that sexual violence is inevitable. Rather than seeing this as a problem to fix, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of sexual violence as “just the way things are.”
So how does this system affect victims of sexual violence?
When victims of sexual violence come forward, they are often blamed for what happened to them—because of what they were wearing, because maybe they had been drinking, because they accepted a dinner invitation or went upstairs after the date. For all of these reasons and many others, society sees the assault as something the victim could have prevented by making a different choice.
These thoughts blame the victim, often sounding like this: “If you had only ____, this wouldn’t have happened to you.”
This is referred to as victim blaming, and it doesn’t happen with other crimes.
But surely people don’t think this way?
Unfortunately, we’ve lived within the rape culture framework for a long time—not everyone is educated (or cares to be educated) about the realities of sexual violence or understands how rape myths affect our thinking.
What is a rape myth?
We’re glad you asked. There are so many of them, and they are so prevalent in our society, that it’s easy to accept this misinformation as truth. Here’s a sampling of a few of the most prominent ones.
Is there anything I can do to help end sexualized violence or change rape culture?
Definitely! There are lots of ways to help—we’ve made a list.