April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Although every month should be Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, April allows us to pay extra attention to this issue. The most important thing to know about sexual violence and assault is, it is never the survivor’s fault. The survivor did nothing to egg on the behavior of their abuser. Sexual assault is the abuser’s fault, not the survivor’s. Period.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual violence is an umbrella term that encapsulates all forms of sexual assault and abuse. The exact definition of what legally constitutes sexual assault varies from state to state. Sexual violence includes sexual assault, intimate partner violence, incest, date rape, and child abuse. Other forms of sexual violence also include sexual harassment, stalking, coercion, revenge porn, plus several others. A full list with in-depth definitions can be found at rainn.org.
Although there are many types of sexual violence and different types of sexual assault, consent is the main factor at play within any of these crimes. Consent is when someone freely and completely agrees to something another person has proposed. In order to fully consent, the person consenting cannot be under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, they should not be coerced, and there should be no pressure whatsoever. The person is freely choosing on their own accord. Consent exists in everyday life and obviously in sexual relationships as well. Consent is ongoing and can change at any time, meaning just because you’ve had sex with someone before does not mean you have to have sex with them again. You are allowed to change your mind at any moment during a sexual encounter, and you are allowed to communicate that to your partner. The legal definition of consent varies from state to state, and horrifically, Indiana does not have a legal definition of consent., which makes persecuting sexual assault crimes much harder than it should be.
Resources for sexual assault survivors and more
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, known as RAINN, is an excellent resource for sexual assault survivors, advocates, and people looking to learn more about prevention and support. RAINN offers many examples of types of sexual violence, warning signs, and how to help someone in need. If you are a survivor yourself, they also have a hotline available to call into, as well as a chat.
An American is assaulted every 73 seconds, and most of the survivors of sexual assault are women. Although people do get assaulted by strangers, most of the time it is by someone they know. The main way to prevent sexual assault is for assaulters to stop assaulting, but unfortunately, that cannot be fixed with a snap of our fingers. There are some things, though, we can do to help.
Teaching consent to children
Teach consent from an early age, and talk about consent openly and honestly as much as you can. We can teach young children about consent from the time they first begin interacting with others. Rather than forcing a child to hug an estranged relative because it’s “the polite thing to do,” ask the child if they feel comfortable hugging said stranger. Give them the choice. Encourage the adult to not react offended or coerce the child if they choose not to hug them. Teaching children and the adults in their lives that consent is a normal, safe part of life can help this next generation grow up to be more gentle with one another and honor each other’s boundaries.
Improving culture’s perception of sexual assault
Most people that commit acts of sexual violence are men. We can change the culture of society to value women as equals and break down toxic ideas of misogyny that tell men they are allowed to treat women as they please, rather than as human beings. Of course, men are survivors of sexual assault as well, and women can commit sex crimes too. We must change the culture to stop these crimes from happening. This can’t happen overnight, but continuing to raise girls and boys as equals could hopefully help stop this intense misogyny.
Step in when you see something not quite right. RAINN has a wonderful page on what you can do as a bystander if you notice something escalating that seems dangerous. They use the acronym CARE to provide a guide for bystander intervention. Create a distraction, Ask directly, Refer to an authority, Enlist others. If your intuition leads you to believe the dynamic between two people seems alarming or unsafe, trust that. Create a distraction such as interjecting yourself in the conversation, then when you have a moment with the person you are concerned about, ask them directly if they are safe. Ask if they know this person who keeps talking to them. Ask who they came with. Interjecting as a bystander can be scary, and you might even think, “Oh it’s nothing, I’m just overreacting.” It is much better to overreact than to let something slide that doesn’t seem right.
RAINN has amazing resources for sexual assault prevention, education, and support for survivors, as well as what you can do to support survivors. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-656-4673. It is free, confidential, and available 24/7.