Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes, and less than 40 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement.
This is because of the unique shame, fear, and embarrassment that sexual assault victims experience. All of this is then compounded by cultures of victim-blaming in which rape and assault victims are often said to be “asking for it” by dressing too provocatively, going out alone too late at night, or drinking too much. The victim-blaming impulse shows up every time stories of sexual assault appear in the news.
Defining assault and consent
With the prevalence of sexual violence, it is important to have a clear definition of sexual assault and consent. Many victims are not sure if what happened to them was assault, and the shame and pressure to remain silent lead to a recurring cycle of traumatization.
“Sexual assault” is the current legal term that replaced the narrow definition of rape, though some states use the terms interchangeably. In Rid of My Disgrace, a book I wrote with my wife, our definition of sexual assault is: any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority.
A key concept in all of these cases of sexual assault is that the victim did not consent to the sexual contact.
What is consent?
Consent is when an individual is freely able to make a choice based upon respect and equal power, and with the understanding that there is the freedom to change her or his mind at any time. To judge whether a sexual act is assault, we ask: (1) Are both people old enough to consent? (2) Do both people have the capacity to consent? (3) Did both agree to the sexual contact? If any of these are answered “no,” it is likely that sexual assault has occurred.
Consent requires communicating “yes” to engaging in a particular act. Consent is not given when one person says “no,” says nothing, is coerced, is physically forced, is mentally or physically helpless, is intoxicated, is under the influence of drugs, or is unconscious. Having given consent on a previous occasion does not mean that a person has consented for any future encounter. The law generally assumes that a person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believe they are undergoing a medical procedure.
Sexual assault affects millions of women, men, and children worldwide. Though its prevalence is difficult to determine exactly (because of under-reporting), the statistics are still overwhelmingly high: One in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes.
According to the Bureau of Justice, women 16 to 19 years old have the highest rate of sexual victimization of any age group. Statistics show that 15 percent of sexual assault victims are under age 12 years old, 29 percent are ages 12 to 17, and 80 percent are under age 30. The highest risk years are ages 12 to 34, and girls ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault.
Shedding light on the truth
For victims, acknowledging and naming what happened to you is an important step in the healing process. For everyone else, greater awareness of the culture of violence and exploitation of women and children is essential so we can work to fight this evil and care for those around us who have been victimized.