What is considered sexual assault?
What is considered sexual assault?
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
I was a carefree 11-year-old walking down the street when a man approached me, quickly grabbing my breast before running away. While I didn’t have the words to describe it at the time, it was sexual assault and it wouldn’t be my only experience. There was the time a man in a crowded subway pushed his erect penis up my thigh. Then there was the moment when I was walking to work and a man came up behind me on his bike and grabbed my butt so hard that the pain (not to mention the violation) left me in tears.
Experiences like this are alarmingly common.
Every 68 secondsone person is sexually assaulted in America and more than half of all women experience some form of physical sexual assault in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But what is considered sexual assault and what steps do you need to take if it has happened to you? Here’s what you need to know.
What does sexual assault mean?
In short words, sexual assault it is any type of sexual contact that occurs without the person consenting or consenting to sexual activity. This includes situations where the person cannot consent, which includes anyone who is underage, intellectually disabled, passed out, stoned, or intoxicated.
People often think of sexual assault as rape, but there are many other types of sexual assault, including incidents that don’t involve physical contact, such as someone sharing sexually explicit photos or “showing off” — exposing their genitals.
The physical types of sexual assault can range from touching or stroking on or under clothing to rape. What is always the same is that the person who is committing the assault is crossing a line and forcing an unwanted sexual action on someone else.
Sexual assault is a hugely underreported crime that can happen to anyone, yet women and transgender people are overwhelmingly the targets. Nine out of ten victims are women and some reports suggest that half of all transgender people experience some form of violence or sexual abuse.
Types of sexual assault
- Rape or attempted rape: The Department of Justice defines rape such as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any part of the body or object, or oral penetration by another person’s sexual organ, without the victim’s consent.” Rape can be committed by a stranger or by someone you know. Indeed, 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by a person known to the victim. Rape and marital rape, which occur between romantic partners or spouses, are forms of acquaintance rape.
- Unwanted touch: This includes any intentional sexual contact, over or under clothing, that is unwanted.
- Sexual contact with a minor: The age of consent, which is the age at which it is legal for a person to agree to sexual activity, ranges from 16 to 18 depending on the state. Any sexual contact by an adult with someone under the age of consent, even with consent, is considered statutory assault or rape.
- Incest: Sexual contact between family members often results in ongoing sexual abuse of children.
- Outrage of modesty: When someone exposes their genitals in public or to another person without consent.
- Peeping out: When someone watches private sexual acts without the consent of those involved in the acts.
- Sex Pictures/Videos: Forcing someone to watch or pose for pictures or videos of sexual content against their will.
- Sharing of sexual content: Often called “revenge porn” when done online, sharing intimate content without the consent of the other party is a form of sexual assault.
- Threats or sexual harassment: Coercing or persuading someone to engage in sexual activity with threats of violence or damage to family, career or reputation.
What is the meaning of consent?
Whether an act is considered sexual assault depends on consent. While the legal meaning of consent varies from state and situationit boils down to the people involved actively and knowingly agreeing to a sexual encounter.
Consent can be reversible, meaning you can change your mind if you previously consented. Consent isn’t granted by circumstances, such as how you’re dressed, how many sexual partners you’ve had, or whether you’ve had sex with the same partner before. Physiological responses such as arousal or even having an orgasm do not mean that you have consented.
Sex can be non-consensual even if you don’t specifically say “no,” especially if you’re disengaged or appear uncomfortable or upset.
The best course of action for securing consent is to both ask about your partner’s boundaries and be specific about yours.
What to do if you have been sexually assaulted
- First, know that you are not to blame. “There’s a lot of mixed messaging, judgment and shaming in our culture around the body and sexuality,” said Erika Shershun, LMFT, a somatic therapist and author of the “Sexual Trauma Healing Workbook.“Often the deep conditioning around these issues creates a feeling of shame about something (the victim) over which they had no control… most survivors freeze, then blame themselves for not doing more to fight.”
- If you’re in danger, call 911 or a trusted friend and get to a safe space.
- Write down the details of what happened and any details about the person who attacked you.
- If you were physically attacked, save anything that might contain the attacker’s DNA. Do not comb, brush, clean or wash any part of your body and, if possible, do not change your clothes. If you change your clothes, keep what you were wearing in a bag that you can take to the hospital or police station. Do not alter or touch anything from the site of the assault. Even if you ultimately decide not to report the crime, keeping the evidence intact will help the investigation if you do.
- Get medical help if you are injured. Call an ambulance or go to the nearest hospital to have any injuries treated immediately. If you’ve been raped, it’s a good idea to have a rape kit, which will provide evidence if you decide to take legal action. You can get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), get post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to help prevent HIV, and get Plan B emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. If you think you have been drugged, ask to be tested.
- Get emotional trauma support and be patient with yourself. “Shock, fear, pain, shame, anger, and/or rage are common emotions that surface before and during the healing process,” Shershun said. “Some people suppress, minimize or compartmentalize the trauma, and for some the memory is repressed. This is not a conscious choice; rather, how their mind and body do not cause further overwhelm and thus further trauma to their system.
Working with a therapist, calling a rape crisis hotline, talking to a trusted friend, and keeping a journal can help you process what happened.
“No matter what happened to you, it wasn’t your fault – you didn’t give permission,” Shershun said. “Your body did what it was supposed to do to help you survive. It’s never too late to heal. With the right tools and support, healing is always possible. You are not alone.”
If you or someone you know is or has been a victim of sexual assault, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or al National Domestic Violence Hotline
at 800-799-SAFE (7233).
State organizations and hotlines
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can also help you find programs in your area. Call 800-799-SAFE (7233).
VictimConnect Resource Center
The VictimConnect Resource Center provides a place for crime victims to access information about their rights, options, resources and referrals. Go online or call 855-4-VICTIM (855-484-2846).
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