Sexual Assault: It’s closer than you think

April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. There’s a month for everything under the sun, it seems but this one is particularly important, I think, because so many people are affected by sexual assault.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network [RAINN], sexual assault includes, but is not limited to, unwanted sexual touching, rape, incest, sexual exploitation and sexual harassment. The statistics are bananas:

  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
  • Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted.
  • About 3% of American men — or 1 in 33 — have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

Yes, those are shocking but you can throw statistics at someone all day and they won’t necessarily feel a connection to what is happening around them. I guarantee that you know at least one person who has been sexually assaulted in some way. I have personally been sexually assaulted at different points in my life: once as a child by an adult close to my family who I had trusted and later in life shortly after college when my drink was tampered with and I was drugged. I say this here because I believe it gives power to those who choose not to or cannot speak out. When our society shames victims of sexual assault, we empower those who hurt boys, girls, men and women. By identifying as a woman who has been assaulted, I reject that shame.

I can say these things now because I’m an adult who has had an opportunity to reflect upon what happened in the past. But when I was a kid, I didn’t tell anyone what was happening to me. I knew what it was. I knew it was wrong. I even knew exactly what one was supposed to do in such a situation. I didn’t speak up to my family, however, because I felt like they would be hurt and upset. I thought it would be best to just deal with it. I saw myself as the strong one – strong enough to deal with what was happening to me – stronger than my family who would, in my mind, be crushed by the weight of my reality. Even when I was older, I didn’t go to the police after I was sure that my drink had been drugged. At the time I worked at a domestic violence agency and was closely allied with the local sexual assault agency. I knew what the deal was with most “date rape drugs” – how quickly they leave your system, how it’s her word versus his, how it often comes down to an airing out of your personal sexual history in an attempt to discredit you. I was and still am positive that I did not consent to sex with that man and that I felt different than I had ever felt before; not drunk, but almost paralyzed and in a sleep walking state. Still I did not think it “worth it” to tell anyone other than a friend about what happened. I’m not the type to call a hotline or anything like that so I just kept it moving.

Why am I telling you all this? So that you know how nearly anyone around you could have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. So that you know to ask even the strong, independent girls and boys the hard questions. So that you quit shaming and blaming victims and instead empower them to report crimes and violations.

For more resources on how to help, see these tips from RAINN:

  • Listen. Be there. Don’t be judgmental.
  • Be patient. Remember, it will take your loved one some time to deal with the crime.
  • Help to empower your loved one. Rape and sexual assault are crimes that take away an individual’s power, it is important not to compound this experience by putting pressure on your loved one to do things that he or she is not ready to do yet.
  • If you are dealing with an issue involving your child, create a safe place by talking directly to them.
  • If you are the non-abusing parent in a case of incest, it is important to support your child and help them through this situation without blaming them. This is also true if you are not a parent but still an observer of incest.
  • If your loved one is considering suicide, follow-up with them on a regular basis.
  • Encourage your loved one to report the rape or sexual assault to law enforcement (call 911 in most areas). If your loved one has questions about the criminal justice process, talking with someone on the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1.800.656.HOPE, can help.
  • Let your loved one know that professional help is available through the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1.800.656.HOPE, and the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.
  • If your loved one is willing to seek medical attention or report the assault, offer to accompany him or her wherever s/he needs to go (hospital, police station, campus security, etc.)
  • Encourage him or her to contact one of the hotlines, but realize that only your loved one can make the decision to get help.