TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains in depth discussion of sexual assault and rape.
Resources for Sexual Assault and Rape Survivors and their loved ones are available at the end of this article.
Let me first start off with a little bit about my background regarding the subject:
In the fall of 2009, I was a freshman at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. During Freshman Orientation, I was introduced to a group on campus called Campus Educators on Sexual Assault, or better known as C.E.S.A. I learned that every year, they do a training program to become a peer educator that was worth one college credit. For me, it was a situation that did not take much thought. As a sexual assault survivor myself, I had always been a passionate advocate on the issue. I saw it as an opportunity to better learn how to educate people on the subject.
So for five weeks, I spent three hours every Wednesday night, learning facts, having small group discussions, and listening to talks from the facilitators and guest speakers. At times, talking about the subject was tough, but at the end of the five weeks, I was certified as a peer educator.
In lieu of the recent episode of Switched At Birth and the issues it is raising, I thought it was about time that I share my knowledge with a larger audience.
Let's start off with the legal definition of rape.
Rape in legal terms is defined as:
"The penetration of any bodily orifice without consent and with force or threat of force. Penetration can be with fingers, objects, or penis to the mouth or anus.
Consent cannot be given (legally) if a person is impaired, intoxicated, drugged, underage, mentally challenged, unconscious, or asleep."
In the United States, the age of consent varies by state, but they all fall in the range of (16-18). To find your state, you can click here.
For other countries, you can find the ages here.
Sexual Assault is a generic term (not used legally) referring to nonconsensual and forced sexual contact.
In cases of both parties being unable to give consent (e.g. both people are drunk), the law holds accountable the one who initiates penetration. In this case, at the end of the day, it is about how someone feels.
So what is consent?
Consent is communicating your needs and listening to the needs of your partner, and listening to what the other person wants. It is not only listening and talking about that, but it is also respecting it. Asking for consent doesn't have to be awkward. Just have a conversation with the person with whom you intend to have sexual contact. Open communication is key for both parties to feel good about what is going on. That being said, if someone is uncomfortable with something, you should not try to force someone into anything. Keep talking the whole time, and ask the person what feels good to them and if they are okay? Someone not telling you no, does not necessarily mean that they want it.
Consent is sexy. Rape is not.
Consent means an enthusiastic "yes." Both parties have to want it without feeling forced. Both parties need to be of age and able to understand what is going on. They need to not be under influence of substances that can impair that mental capacity. They need to understand that consent for one thing is not consent for all things, and that consent can be withdrawn at ANY time.
Things that do NOT equal consent:
Being in a relationship
The absence of "no"
Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol
If the person does not feel free to say "no"
Having sex in the past
Kissing or other sexual contact (is not consent to all acts)
A "no" that later turns into a "yes" as a result of pressure or coercion
What are some misconceptions about sexual assault and rape?
Rape has to do with sex and passion.
Reality: Rape has to do with power, aggression, and dominance.
Only men rape or sexually assault women.
Reality: Men and women can both be raped or sexually assaulted by someone of any gender or sexual orientation. The facts are that 1 in 4 women are survivors and 1 in 7 men.
Someone who has been drinking is partially responsible for their sexual assault.
Reality: Under no circumstances is it ever a survivor's fault. Just because someone goes drinking, does not give someone else the right to sexually assault them.
If a couple is dating or married, it's not rape.
Reality: Nonconsensual sexual activity in any relationship is sexual assault.
Most survivors are raped by a stranger, in an unfamiliar place or on a dark night.
Reality: It is estimated that 80-85% of rapists are known to their victim. Statistics show that in the cases of women, 50% of assaults occur in or near her home and 50% of them happen during the day.
Women often lie about being raped.
Reality: Rape is actually vastly underreported and the rate of false reports is very small (2 - 4%).
If the person did not fight back or if there was no weapon, then it was not rape.
Reality: Threats of violence or actions that would negatively impact the person's life are weapons and something that a rapist can use to force the person into doing what they want. Force can include blackmail or coercion. One example would be a boss threatening to fire an employee unless he or she has sex with him or her. Another example would be a couple and one saying that one would not love the other person anymore unless they have sex or saying that the other party must not love the one who is acting forcefully.
What do I do if it happens to me?
First of all, you need to remember this above everything else. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT!
What you decide is up to you.
If it has just happened, and you need help or medical attention:
Once you are in a safe place, you can either call the police or go to someone you trust for help. You may also visit your local hospital. It is a good idea to get checked out and treated for the trauma. Be sure to not disturb your clothes or any other part of your body because it can be used as evidence if you decide to have a rape kit done. Even if you have a rape kit done, it does not mean that you have to go through with pressing charges.
Other help that you can consider is talking to a trusted person or a counselor to help you cope. When you are ready to talk, it is good to have a strong support system available to you.
Some people decide to pursue a legal case, but you do not have to do that if you do not want that. Those who are on a college campus may decide to pursue a case through the school alone. Again, what you decide to do is your choice, and no one else's.
What do I do if someone confides in me they were raped?
The person is confiding in you because they trust you. It is not your place to question whether or not a rape happened. It is very unlikely that they are making it up. The percentage of falsified reports of rape is very small.
HELP them know their options
Let the person know the options available to them, but don't try to force them into making a decision. Let them make the best decision for them, even if it not the way that you would handle the situation. The person may feel that they have lost a sense of control in their life, so you do not want to further take control away from them. Support whatever decision they may make.
LISTEN to them
It is important to let a survivor know that thy can talk to you about their experience when they are ready. When the person comes to talk about it, don't interject, yell, or try to project your feelings. Just keep your ears and your heart open to them.
NEVER BLAME them for what happened to them
It is never a survivor's fault. It does not matter what someone wears, what they look like, or if they have had alcohol. No one ever deserves rape, no matter what society may tell you.
ASK before you touch
It is not safe to assume that a hug or any other physical contact may be comforting to a sexual assault survivor. Many of them, especially in those first few weeks, prefer to avoid even simple touching by those they love and touch. Give them the space they may need and be patient.
RECOGNIZE that you've been assaulted too
It is very likely that you will also feel hurt when someone you love or care about is suffering. You may feel emotions such as sadness, confusion, anger, helplessness, guilt, and anxiety to name a few. It's okay to feel all those things and more. Recognizing these emotions will help you to be more understanding and supportive.
GET HELP for yourself
It is important that you reach out to someone, whether it be a friend, family member, counselor, etc. You do not have to go through this alone. The impact of a rape extends far beyond the survivor, and a lot of rape crisis centers offer counseling for significant others and family members in addition to survivors. Remember, asking for help is not a weakness.
Resources for Survivors, Loved Ones, and Allies:
National Sexual Assault Hotline
Department of Defense (DOD) Hotline
Suicide Prevention Hotline
To Locate a Crisis Center Near You:
Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres
Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre Hotline
Sexual Assault /Domestic Violence Care Centre Hotline
The Sexual Assault/Rape Crisis Centre of Peel 24/7 Crisis Line
Regional Sexual and Domestic Assault Program, Simcoe County/Muskoka Hotline
Ottawa Rape Crisis Center Hotline
Toronto Rape Crisis Centre Hotline
Montreal Rape Crisis Centre Hotline
Rape Crisis England & Wales
0808.802.9999 (open daily from 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm)
Scottish Rape Crisis Network
Victim Support Scotland
Victim Support National Office
South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA)
Auckland Rape Crisis
To reach your local Victim Support Group, call: 0800 VICTIM
To find a country that's not listed here: