April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and while that may not sound as fun as National Soft Pretzel Month or National Straw Hat Month (which are also real observations in April), it is important for us to take time to address serious issues of this kind. Being a productive part of conversations about sexual assault starts with understanding the issue. Sexual assault includes rape and any other sexual contact that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. And seeing that 1 in 6 American women and 1 in 3 women globally are victims of sexual violence in their lifetime, if you are a woman, you probably understand this issue relatively well. What you may not know is that women of color have disproportionately higher rates of being sexually assaulted than white women, and 10% of rape victims are male. and 63% of all sexual assaults are not reported to the police, making the problem of sexual assault not only an epidemic but a quieted one.
To understand the degree and possible root of this problem, we should keep in mind that 99% of sexual assault is committed by men, and less than 1% of rapists spend a day in jail. This crime is not comparable to other crimes which have far higher rates of reporting and incarceration, which begs the question of: Why? Sexual assault is a culturally accepted and, at times, encouraged part of society. What most people fail to understand is that sexual assault is not about sexual attraction; it’s about power. And that power is typically exerted by (white) men over women, especially women of color, through assault, along with the messages our culture sends to people of all genders. This is where the term “Rape Culture” comes from.
“Sexual assault is not about sexual attraction; it’s about power.”
Almost all os us have a loved one who has been a victim of sexual assault or are victims ourselves. This is something most of us have come to understand and accept. We can begin to deal with such a prodigious issue by taking care of each other: our partners, friends, and family who have been victims of abuse and assault. If we ourselves are victims of assault, we should get any support we may need or desire. There are sexual assault hotlines, places to report the crime, health care facilities, and therapy options. RAINN has a page with several questions to help provide you or a loved on insight into self-care after an assault. Remember that battling larger societal issues begins with taking care of ourselves.
We can expand our fight against rape culture by noticing and speaking against attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate sexual assault. As I am writing this article, I am having trouble knowing where to even begin to convey the prevalence of assault and its toleration. Fear of sexual assault follows women wherever they go: to school, to the grocery store, to crowded areas, on public transit, home; the list goes on and on. The issue of sexual assault is an issue of being a woman and taking up space. We are not allowed to be without being dismissed, objectified, fondled, or assaulted. Our own damn president talks about grabbing women by the pussy (assault!). Robin Thick sings about “Blurred Lines” (he means assault!). A journalist writes about a girl who was “forcefully deflowered” (AKA raped!). And while our president defends alleged sexual harasser, Bill O’Reilly, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month because “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” we need to be battling the attitudes that make this behavior acceptable.
We start with conversations in our homes and our communities. When something is problematic, talk about it; explain what is wrong with it to the people around you. Reprimand attitudes and language that belittle sexual assault survivors and normalize assault. Support and believe victims of assault within your communities, along with those in the public eye. Educate yourself and your family and friends about consent. Empower yourself to know your own boundaries and to feel comfortable saying no in uncomfortable positions.
It is easy for us to accept that our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends are victims of assault, but much harder for us to accept that it is our fathers, brothers, sons, and friends who are most often assaulters, which is why our conversations about assault must expand beyond the women in our lives. When the men in your life say something problematic, call them out. Men are often ignorant to issues that women face because they are not communicated to them. In fact, a national survey conducted by Planned Parenthood found that women were more likely than men to have a clear understanding of consent and sexual assault. In my own experience, most men who are sexual assaulters or manipulators do not see themselves as such, so it is especially important to have these conversations with them.
Lastly, we must create a generation of youth who understand consent and, thus, are able to have healthy sexual relationships. Support sex ed curriculum that teaches about consent. Talk to your children or younger siblings about consent. Inform them that those “blurred lines” are clarified by simply asking one’s partner what they want and respecting their decisions. Do not raise your children in environments where they feel silenced or uncomfortable saying no, and remember to ensure your daughters especially feel safe and confident enough to use their voice when they feel injustice. Let us fight some of the worst evils of the world with love, education and empowerment.