For many women, sexual assault is the most frightening experience they can imagine. Sexual assault is being forced or coerced to engage in any unwanted sex act, whether physical, verbal or visual. Sexual assault aka sexual violence includes all forms of rape (date, acquaintance, partner), incest and sexual abuse of children or teens (including covert sexual abuse by forcing children to watch sexual acts or engage in acts with other children or animals), domestic violence (forcing a spouse or partner to engage in sex), stalking, sexual harassment and hate crimes.
The statistics are staggering. According to The Rape, Abuse and Incest Network (RAAIN), 1 in every 6 women in the US will be a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. 44% of sexual assault victims are under 18 years of age and 80% are under 30. 9 out of 10 reported sexual assault victims are women. Approximately 2/3 – ¾ of the perpetrators of sexual violence are known by their victims. Some believe sexual assault can only be perpetrated by men. However, sexual assault perpetrators can be women,and men can be victims of sexual assault.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center and thousands of other organizations in the US are raising awareness about the problem of sexual assault. The current campaign is geared toward teaching adolescents about healthy sexuality in an effort to prevent sexual violence. The premise of this approach is that teaching adolescent about healthy sexuality includes helping them learn to talk to each other about their needs, what they like and don’t like, what feels comfortable and what does not. By learning to talk openly and listen to their partners, these young people are more likely to develop a healthy respect for others. As they learn to ask what feels safe before taking action, these young people are more likely to honor the wishes of others with regard to their sexual behavior.
Why Does Sexual Violence Happen?
Sexual violence, as with all violence, is a complicated matter. There is no easy answer to why it happens, but there are many theories. A few of the most common beliefs about the causes of violence are listed below.
Power and Control – Many believe that violence toward another person, whether sexual or otherwise, is about the need of the perpetrator to control and/or overpower the victim. The specifics are too complex to address here, but it is underpinned by a belief that it is okay to take what you want, even if you have to use force to do so. In fact, some who have psychiatric disorders are aroused by the violence (see psychopathology).
Anger and Aggression – According to self report, many men who rape see the act as a way to vent their anger. They report taking their frustration and anger out on their victims, even when their anger is unrelated to the victim.
Outdated Societal Norms – Much earlier in history, women, children and slaves were considered property of the men in the household. During that time, men were allowed to force their wives, slaves and children to do whatever they wanted, sexually and otherwise. The use of force was acceptable. These beliefs, though long outdated, are passed along from generation to generation, usually in more subtle terms.
Delayed Sexual, Social and Psychological Development – There is a theory that priests and other adults who sexually abuse children and teens are attracted to those who are around the same age that their sexual/social/psychological development was thwarted. For example, a man may have determined that his mission in life was to join the priesthood at age 12. Because of this, his sexual development may have stopped at an early age, meaning he did not successfully complete some of the tasks of his sexual development. In this case, he may still be attracted to children or teens at the age his development stopped.
Psychopathology and Sociopathy – Some people who sexually assault are driven by mental illness, although this is a small percentage. The majority is antisocial, meaning they have no remorse for hurting people. We tend to see these characters portrayed on popular television shows, but they actually make up a small percentage of perpetrators. NOTE: Even those who rape or sexually assault due to mental illness are responsible for their actions unless they were unaware of their actions at the time of the crime (psychosis) – which is very rare.
The Victim ‘Wanted It’ – Many sex offenders report distorted ways of thinking based on irrational beliefs about the world. They may think someone who is kind or courteous to them actually wants to have sex with them. Others blame the victims by saying the way s/he was dressed was ‘asking for it’. Some of these people are mentally ill, but most are conditioned by societal norms and misinformation.
Repeating the Pattern of Abuse – About 30% of perpetrators were victims previously. Left untreated, childhood victims are at risk for being perpetrators as adults. However, most victims of childhood sexual abuse do not victimized others.
What You Can Do to Help
1. Teach your kids respect and empathy for other people. Those who victimize others must be able to detach from the feelings of the victim. A person with empathy (the ability to put yourself in the place of another) is less able to harm another person.
2. Correct faulty thinking and beliefs. Kids internalize their beliefs and thinking about the world from parents, authority figures, the media and other sources. If your child makes statements about other people, different races, minorities, women/girls, men/boys, etc. that are degrading, disrespectful, hateful, illogical or simply ill-considered, talk to them about it. Explain why that thinking is wrong – help them value others as individuals and respect differences. Often song lyrics or scenes from movies are glorified by popular culture and become normalized, thus believed to be acceptable behavior.
3. Get involved. Active parenting is the most effective way to manage and guide your children, especially teens. At the time when teens want the most freedom, they need a lot of guidance to understand the conflicting messages they receive. Be there for them.
4. Practice what you preach. Telling your kids to respect others, but talking badly about your spouse, neighbors, people of different faiths or races, etc. sends the wrong message. Kids follow our actions more than our edicts. A young teen who overhears a parent, coach or teacher saying what idiots, losers or pains-in-the-butt their wives or daughters are may develop that belief, which can lead to easily disregarding the needs or wants of females who disagree with them.
5. Get help with your faulty thinking. If you recognize yourself in any of the scenarios and are concerned you may be setting the wrong example for your kids, get professional help to address these concerns.
"Sexual Assault Awareness: Healthy Sexuality." National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). Web. 20 Mar. 2014.
"Statistics | RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network." RAINN | Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.
"Why Does Rape and Sexual Assault Happen?" Yarrow Place. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.