Surviving Sexual Assault Part 1: Separating the facts from fiction
What is sexual assault? Rape likely came to mind; a stranger jumping out from behind a bush to attack a woman on the street at night. And while this scenario represents one form of this cruel and punishable act, many others exist. Any non-consensual sexual activity or contact qualifies as assault, from rape and attempted rape to inappropriate touching, obscene phone calls and voyeurism.
As varied as the attacks themselves, the psychological impact differs significantly from person to person. A child may not realize they've been victimized, while an adult might try to convince themselves a spousal rape was consensual. Everyone's experience is unique. What's common are feelings of anger, confusion, guilt and shame, which extends beyond individual survivors and across society. The achievements and contributions that may never happen because of sexual assault represent a cost we cannot measure. But it's one every community pays, because sexual violence happens to all kinds of people, in all kinds of places.
But there's hope. Sexual assault is preventable, and we all have a role in establishing the norms of equality, safety, support and respect. With connection at all levels, it's possible to protect each other against this criminal act and for those already impacted to live a healthy life. This message of social responsibility, support and survivorship unites four leading health and well-being organizations. Community Center Shanghai, Ferguson Health, Inward and United Family Healthcare have partnered to raise awareness and support funds for sexual and intimate abuse survivors. And Shanghai Daily is proud to support with this, the first in a three-part series on sexual assault.
To empower ourselves, we need to know what we're up against. So to begin, separating the facts from fiction. What is and isn't sexual assault?
A women's issue
Sexual assault can occur regardless of gender identity, and intimate partner violence happens in relationships regardless of gender or sexual orientation. While it's most common for sexual violence to be committed against women, it's vital to recognize that survivors include many males. Because assault is such a sensitive, complex issue, reporting sexual violence can be tremendously challenging for any survivor, perhaps especially for males due to social attitudes and stereotypes about masculinity.
Some men feel shame or self-doubt, believing they should have been "strong enough" to fight off a perpetrator. A survivor himself, Adam said: "There's a stigma attached. That, 'Oh, you're a man; you should be able to fend him off.'"
Furthermore, men or boys who experienced an erection or ejaculation during an assault may question what it means about their sexual orientation. It means nothing. Nor does it indicate a person "invited, asked for or enjoyed" the experience; it's simply a normal physiological response of the body.
Fact: Research indicates one in six men experience sexual violence.
The perception that sexual assault often gets misreported is common. It's a statement repeated in the media with high-profile accusations and the trope of books and movies that form our cultural heritage. Take the recent debate around allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh or the plotline of Harper Lee's 1960 classic "To Kill A Mockingbird."
In reality, only 2-5 percent of sexual assault accusations are false. According to research, around 65-95 percent of attacks aren't reported, meaning the percentage of false allegations across all assaults is much lower. However, public or private questioning serves one big purpose: it makes survivors doubt they'll be believed. Wary of having their behavior, integrity or morality questioned, many people decide not to report an assault. But the stereotype that victims lie to exact revenge or seek attention doesn't protect innocent, alleged perpetrators (the justice system does that); it only perpetuates an unwillingness in survivors to speak up. The culture around reportage needs to change. We must believe the survivors of assault rather than question the integrity of their claims.
Fact: You are far more likely to be assaulted than be the victim of a false allegation.
No one will believe you
The shame that comes with sexual trauma has the overwhelming potential to eat at a person's ability to assess or show empathy toward themselves in its aftermath objectively. When survivors consider reaching out, needing help is often the last thing they think of. Instead, questions plague the mind: "Maybe I did something wrong;" "Will there be retaliation if I say something?;" "People know I drink a lot. Maybe they'll think I'm being dramatic;" "He's likeable, no one will believe me;" "We're in a relationship, so how can it be rape?"
Shame and doubt can paralyze an individual's ability to seek support or tell someone what's happened. This fear can also start a damaging cycle of unhealthy coping habits so often seen as a result of trauma. Asking for support doesn't mean doing anything you're not ready for. It can simply be finding someone to listen, and allowing yourself to be heard, seen, believed and validated. And when appropriate, having help can guide steps toward healing. If you've experienced sexual assault, what happened is not your fault. You might feel like no one will believe you, but there are safe spaces filled with people who do.
Fact: We are here, and we believe you.
Alleyways and strangers
Strangers, unfamiliar situations and odd hours get our guards up, but it's around the familiar we're most vulnerable. We educate children to protect themselves against strangers and new surroundings, but it's hard to address why they must also protect themselves from those they know and trust.
"I was very young when my uncle started abusing me, and for years I didn't know what was happening." – Anon.
"I couldn't tell my mother about my stepfather as I was considered old enough to protect myself. I was scared that even if she did believe me, it would create so many problems for her." – Anon.
Perpetrators, known to and trusted by victims or their families, can create situations where sexual violation is so subtle it's mischaracterized as consensual. Abuse is likely to continue while a victim and abuser coexist, and studies prove that disclosure of abuse is less likely when at the hands of a relative. The consequence of disclosure ranges from family breakups and household shame to the imprisonment of the perpetrator; all are barriers to victims speaking up and getting out of abusive situations.
Fact: Caregivers, friends and relatives contribute to 85 percent of child sexual abuse cases.
"I drank too much." "I shouldn't have dressed that way." "I should have been a better partner" "I should have been stronger."
When trying to figure out what they could have done to stop sexual violence, survivors believe they themselves are at fault. The intention might be to regain a sense of control over a dehumanizing situation, but self-blame only makes survivors doubt their perceptions, judgments and desires. Loaded questions mask the toxic cultural message that "if you've not been 'responsible' in societally-sanctioned ways, you deserve what's happened." But as one survivor put it, "I was stripped of my power."
There's no reason, no justification for sexual violence. Change "I"s to "You"s in the above sentences, and imagine the voice of friends, relatives and strangers who – out of their own helplessness – ask: "Why did you put yourself in that situation?" Now imagine a different response: "You did nothing wrong."
Fact: Sexual violence is never the survivor's fault.
Community Center Shanghai, Ferguson Health, Inward and United Family Healthcare are partnering to raise awareness and funds to support survivors of sexual and intimate abuse.
Funds raised from the campaign will go toward supporting Ferguson Health to provide medical consultations and free or subsidized tests for survivors of sexual trauma and intimate partner abuse.
In addition, survivors will be offered a free counseling session from Community Center Shanghai, aimed at addressing what has happened in order to support and attempt to prevent further mental health issues that can often occur as a result of these traumatic experiences.
Watch this video for more information, including how you can support survivors of sexual trauma.