April is recognized sexual assault awareness month (SAAM). Some of you may be wondering- what does sexual assault awareness have to do with our work at REACH?
When I first started working in this field, there was a powerful myth about rape and sexual assault that dominated our thinking and perceptions of what ‘real’ rape is. This popular misconception was that rape was perpetrated exclusively by strangers- often described and depicted by the media as a man jumping out of the bushes and lurking in a dark alley and attacking unsuspecting young women walking late at night. This thinking didn’t allow for discussion or recognition of sexual violence that occurs between people who know each other and it didn’t acknowledge that it could be perpetrated by people other than men or that men and non-female identified folks could be victims.
For many years I worked for rape crisis centers both as an educator and as an advocate. What I learned is that sexual assault happens most often between people who know each other; the assailant is often someone the victim knew and trusted and it happens most often in a place where the victim usually feels safe and comfortable, such as their home. That said, when I looked at the trends in reporting to authorities, what I noticed was the opposite. The closer the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, the less likely the victim was to report. Conversely, the less the victim knew the perpetrator, the more likely they were to report. This trend was related to the myth that rape is only perpetrated by strangers- many victims who knew their assailant blamed themselves for their assault or struggled to define it as an assault- and this reporting trend also worked to uphold this myth. If the only stories we hear about in the news are ones in which sexual assault is perpetrated by a stranger, then that informs our understanding of how sexual assault is defined.
But lately, the popular narrative about sexual assault in the media has shifted. Today, when I talk to community members about stories in the news, many of them reflect on stories focused on sexual assault on college campuses. Sexual assault on college campuses has been an issue for a long, long time, but the media coverage and the community response to this issue has changed in the past several years. Many of the stories that have made headlines focus on sexual assaults on college campuses that often involve acquaintances (rather than strangers) and take place at parties and are facilitated by alcohol and/or other drugs. These stories are real, they are occurring at an alarming rate and these stories should be heard and responded to appropriately. And while it is crucial that these stories be heard, they are also not the only story.
Recently I was talking with some of our volunteers about the role that fear plays into these discussions. Rape is difficult to talk about in part because it’s very scary to think about. We often try to find ways to organize our thinking so that we can believe that rape can’t happen to us. For example, if the narrative we hear tells us that rape only happens in the street late at night, we avoid walking in the street late at night. If the narrative tells us that rape only happens to college students who drink too much, then those of us who have already graduated college can think and believe that we are too old for rape to happen to us and we may warn the young people in our lives who are heading off to college not to drink or leave a drink unattended at a party. The real story about sexual assault is much harder to digest. It challenges our thinking- it makes it harder to believe that we are immune to this issue. Rape and sexual assault can and often do happen without the presence of alcohol and/or other drugs. Rape and sexual assault can and do happen to people of all ages- the youngest person I supported as an advocate at a sexual assault medical exam was only 2 ½ years old; the oldest was in her 60’s. And these were just cases that had been reported; rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in the United States. Rape and sexual assault is perpetrated against all gender identities- I supported men and trans folks at medical exams as well. And, rape and sexual assault can and do happen in the context of a committed and/or intimate relationship.
When I worked at rape crisis centers, I had clients who came to us because their partner had sexually assaulted them. Because we were a rape crisis center, they came in knowing that this was a place where they could talk about the sexual abuse they experienced. Working at a domestic violence organization, our advocates hear stories from survivors about sexual abuse but it often takes some time and relationship building before they feel they can talk about that form of abuse. Often they first pose it as a question, such as: “do you think that rape can happen in a marriage?” Sexual assault, when perpetrated by an intimate partner, can often feel confusing and shameful to a survivor. Because they may have been intimate with this person before, it may make it difficult for the survivor to define this experience as abuse. Consent should be given every time there’s intimacy- it shouldn’t just be assumed because there’s been intimacy before. (Here’s a great video on consent). It may also be confusing because it’s often coercive rather than violent behavior, such as an abusive partner saying, “but if you really loved me you would….” Or “if you’re really faithful to me, I shouldn’t have to use a condom.” Many survivors we work with have experienced various forms of sexual abuse; many of them have never felt comfortable talking about it with friends and family and therefore have been suffering in silence.
Talking about intimacy and sexual behavior can feel uncomfortable even when it is consensual. Part of our job at REACH is to help start these conversations and shine a light on all of the forms of intimate partner violence- experiences that too often that are shrouded in silence and shame. If we can make these experiences more widely known and acknowledged, it is our hope that more survivors will feel empowered to reach out for support.