Every two minutes, an American is the victim of sexual assault. That’s according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN); by that same statistic, some 237,868 victims were reported. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States, and it is a topic that many still deem taboo.
Sexual assault is still a crime that goes widely unreported for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it is a matter of there being some confusion as to whether or not a sexual assault actually occurred. In my case, it was a quiet incident where I kept protesting and saying “No,” but my rapist – a man I had been seeing only briefly – kept saying, “shhh.” He was over twice my weight, a solidly muscular firefighter, and I was solidly pinned to the bed. I had been in my very early twenties and was convinced that sexual assault had to be noisy, incredibly violent and involve some sort of weapon. None of these things are true.
Strictly speaking, rape is forced sexual intercourse. It does not matter whether or not the penetration was oral, anal or vaginal. The way rape is portrayed on television and in the movies does occur, but the media portrays it in that way because then creates tension in the scene, where the viewer is hoping and praying that the victim does survive and when he or she does, that revenge will be gotten against the rapist. The definition of rape does not involve violence through weaponry, though that can occur simply because the person being attacked feels intimidated by the other person’s size or persona. In addition, noise, weaponry or not aside, the very fact that rape occurs by force implies that one of the parties involved in the rape was an unwilling participant. How did the victim end up participating? Because by virtue of the attacker’s size, speed, or sheer intimidation of the victim, the victim was forced to comply.
However, lack of resistance to the crime does not mean that the victim was a willing participant. It simply means that there may have been the possibility of escalation of the violence if the victim resisted. In my case, I did not resist because I was intimidated by the man’s sheer size compared to mine. He was big and muscular and effectively had me pinned. While I did not fear for my life, I was seriously troubled by what had happened and just prayed he would finish quickly.
There are many victims of rape who do not resist their attacker in their own best interests; their focus is on survival and hope that the incident stops sooner rather than later. There are also victims who believe that because they were unconscious or really drunk when the assault occurred that it would not be rape. If the victim is too drunk to consent or unconscious, that does not mean consent is implied.
Sexual assault is generally thought to be a crime that involves unwanted sexual touching, though several states and countries use the term interchangeably with rape. This could be fondling or rubbing – anything which may be deemed as unwanted sexual touching. 38 percent of all sexual assaults are at the hands of a friend or an acquaintance. As a result, there are many who do not believe that an actual crime occurred, as they do not believe their friend or acquaintance or loved one would be capable of a crime like sexual assault.
Molestation is one example of sexual assault. A five-year-old is incapable of giving consent to an adult to having things of a sexual nature done to them, as they largely do not understand what sex even is. Many times, the parents of the molested child simply want to forget the incident even occurred; that is what happened in my case. I was molested at 5 by my second cousin, who was in his 20s. My parents were of the generation where you would yell, cry and scream at the perpetrator, and cut them out of all family functions, but the police would not be involved. This was sadly the case; my family did not discuss the matter, and I wound up forgetting about the incident until my late teens, when a similar crime occurred on a television show I was watching and the memories of the molestation flooded back in full Technicolor.
This is, apparently, not uncommon to sexual assault survivors. When they are young, as I was, the brain tends to tuck it away until it can effectively process the memories. Some simply do not have the reminders that it occurred until something tweaks the memory. Then, a wide range of things could occur, such as increased anxiety and depression, in addition to trust issues and shattered self-esteem. Some argue that repressed memories really do not exist; however, studies have shown that repressed memories that come to life are actually what ultimately contributes to the mental health issues and potential for drug abuse and not the actual event of the sexual assault itself. The argument can therefore be made that memories of the sexual assault are what needs to be dealt with and that is ultimately contributes to the trauma.
During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is important to note that sexual assault is not as simple as going to court to see that justice is done. Those who have gone through sexual assault, whether as a child or as an adult, can deal with the trauma of memories for years to come, up to a lifetime. Unfortunately, because of the taboo that continues to revolve around issues like sexual assault, it is difficult for sexual assault survivors to discuss their trauma openly. It will only be when people are willing to reach out to those survivors and encourage them to talk that the barriers will ultimately be broken.
By Christina St-Jean