Understanding Sexual Assault

Published by Imani Benjamin on

Understanding Sexual Assault

Editor’s Note: This story is the first part of our Sexual Assault Series, a place where victims, friends and families can learn more about the topic.

Sexual assault is a crime that does not affect a single individual. Every day hundreds of people are affected by sexual assault or sexual violence. It affects all genders, ages and sexuality. 

Sexual assault is any sexual activity that occurs without the consent of the victim. It can take many different forms from unwanted touching to rape. Sexual assault appears to be a gendered crime. Almost 90% of victims are women as of 1998, and those most at risk are college-age women between the ages of 18-24. 

Young women on college campuses are often at risk by way of force or incapacitation. Although women have an elevated risk, the men and boys who make up 10% of reported victims cannot be ignored. Young men in the same age range are also at risk of experiencing victimization. That risk may be elevated for young men on college campuses. 

The infographic reflects data for all genders. Amanda Funger | Avant-Youth

While awareness has increased and victims are better equipped to get legal help and compensation they deserve, it is important to keep everyone informed. Understanding what sexual assault or sexual harassment is, is only one part of solving a problem that affects people from all walks of life. 

Defining Sexual Assault: What is it?

Sexual assault and sexual harassment are both broad terms for various forms of inappropriate or predatory contact. Sexual harassment includes acts of unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and verbal or physical harassment. Despite the the name, sexual harassment does not have to be explicitly sexual in nature. It can include negative comments about someone’s gender in the workplace that makes their work environment hostile or makes work difficult. 

Forms of sexual harassment can include making/implying that employment is dependent on sexual favors, verbal commentary such as inappropriate jokes or actual sexual assault. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone anywhere, and can be perpetrated by anyone. Harassers can identify with any gender, sexual orientation, and have any relationship to the victim at hand. 

Unlike sexual harassment, which is aggressive but suggestive or threatening, sexual assault is sexual contact that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. This includes a wide range of behaviors that do not include rape. These behaviors are usually attempted when an individual cannot consent, possibly because the individual is too young, has a disability or is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It can also occur under the threat of force, which can manifest as psychological or emotional coercion or physical violence.

Sexual assault refers to multiple forms of abuse. It can include attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching or forcing a victim to perform or watch a sexual act. It can also be image based, such as revenge porn or nonconsensual pornography.

Revenge porn or nonconsensual pornography is the distribution of explicit or sexual images without the consent of the subject. This includes images originally taken with consent and then later distributed without consent. Even though it may not involve physical sexual contact, it still destroys an individual’s trust and their sense of self control, and it’s a felony in the state of Georgia.   

Nonconsensual pornograrphy may not involve physical sexual contact, but it is still rape according to the Unifrom Crime Reports for the FBI, which defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

In the state of Georgia, any form of sexual assault from harassment to rape, is usualy perpetrated by someone close to the victim. According to Rainn.org, eight out of ten rapes or instances of sexual assault are commited by someone the victim knows. This is known as acquaintance rape. 

When it occurs within an intimate or romantic relationship, it’s known as intimate partner violence. This type of violence in the context of intimate relationships are rarely isolated incidents, and often occur alongside physical and emotional abuse.

Force

An aspect that takes place in sexual assault is force, which, is making someone do something they do not want to do. The two types of force are physical force and emotional manipulation or coercion. 

Physical force, according to Duhaime’s Law Dictionary, is power, violence or pressure directed against an individual consisting in a physical act. Physical force or forcible compulsion is a calculated effort to overcome a victim’s ability to resist. 

In the Missouri Supreme court case, State v. Vandevere, physical force is defined as “a threat, express or implied, that places a person in reasonable fear of death, serious physical injury or kidnapping of himself or another person.” Physical force can occur with or without weapons, but is intended to keep an individual in place. 

Coercion, like physical force, is an expression of power and control. It is known as emotional manipulation or sexual coercion. Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when an individual is pressured, tricked, threatened or forced in a non-physical way.  

A perpetrator can make a victim think they owe their attacker sex. Being pressured in non-physical ways include being worn down with repeated requests for sex, an individual making false promises, or being threatened by the end of a relationship or threatening an individual’s social life. With sexual coercion, a partner might imply that sex will show how much the other half of the relationship cares or make it seem – if the two individuals are already at it – it’s too late to say no. It is never too late. 

It’s important for you to remove yourself as quickly and safely as possible if you feel you’re being coerced into sexual activity you do not want. Be clear and direct with the person attempting coercion. It might feel awkward or you might worry about coming off as a bitch or frigid. At the end of the day, you and your comfort are more important than someone else’s satisfaction, pleasure, let alone their opinion of you.

Psychological manipulation involves inflicting anxiety and stress on a victim by creating exhaustive restrictions, controlling their social environment or brainwashing them to make them accept a new, restrictive reality. Emotional manipulation can manifest through guilt. Perpetrators pressure a partner into sex by insinuating one party is owed sexual favors because of their relationship. Like physical force, it’s meant to keep a victim in fear or dependent on their abuser.

This form of manipulation can be an aspect of what is called intimate partner sexual violence, and is a form of abuse. In relationships where sexual violence is present other forms of abuse are often present as well. Signs of emotional abuse or psychological manipulation involves a partner who attempts to cut you off from family and friends, insults or puts you down, or attempts to control or isolate you.

Communication 

We as humans are social animals. We’re sort of hardwired to seek out relationships and connections with people similar to us. Despite all the time we spend seeking out people who share the same beliefs, interests, and status and building relationships with them, some of us fumble with the communication necessary to maintain those relationships. 

In any relationship, communication (verbal and non-verbal) is important and necessary. Verbal communication is about using your words to express yourself. Nonverbal communication is a little more nuanced but just as important. It tells whoever you’re talking to whether you’re listening, if you care, or even if you’re lying. We use nonverbal communication every day from our facial expressions, posture, eye contact, to how much space we put between ourselves and the person we’re talking to. 

Healthy relationships are built upon good communication. They also depend on support, trust and boundaries. It’s important and necessary to be able to sit down with your partner and discuss boundaries and concerns in long-term relationships and even one night stands. Your partner can’t read your mind, and vice versa. Neither of you can determine what the other likes or doesn’t like without properly talking it out. 

It’s necessary to voice boundaries and concerns for both partners to feel safe and secure in a relationship, understanding verbal and nonverbal communication is an important step towards that. 

Consent is an affirmative, conscious agreement from both participants in any sexual activity. It’s voluntary, revocable and ongoing. It can be withdrawn at any time and must be establihsed whenever sex is initiated.

Just as regular communication is important in our relationships to set boundaries, expectations, and understand each other, sexual communication works the same way. 

No matter how in tune you may be with a partner, short or long term, it’s important to communicate sexual boundaries, desires, and activities. No matter how much we may want to, we can’t read our partner’s minds. A moan, nod, or silence isn’t enough because though they may come off positive, they may not be enough to initiate sexual activity. Non-verbal communication can be tricky in sexual situations. Open communication is important to avoiding what may be an embarrassing bedroom accident – or serious assault. 

The students of University of California, Davis put together this guide to ‘Sexcessful Communication’, which discusses communication in intimate relationships, sexual communication, and even includes a pleasure profile tool to help identify turn-ons and turn-offs with a partner. 

There is no specific type of person that is safe from or prone to assault because of their gender, age or sexuality. Sexual assault affects thousands of people all over the country and all over the world everyday. Our awareness and understanding of sexual assault and the victims continues to grow, and so does our ability to help.

Awareness is important. It’s important to be able to help victims of sexual assault. It’s just as important to have an understanding of what sexual assault is and how to prevent it. It’s a crime that makes its victims – not its perpetrators – ashamed, shunned or blamed for sharing their stories and asking for help. 

As we step into April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we should make it a priority to talk and understand vulnerable friends, while learning how to protect ourselves. 

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Imani Benjamin

Imani Benjamin

Imani Benjamin-Wharton is a graduate from Georgia State University with a degree in English. She’s an aspiring novelist hoping to write the next great American novel. In her free time, she learns the secrets of survival from her favorite horror movies.

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