In the movies, sexual assault looks like this: a dark alley, a beautiful young woman, and a stranger with a knife or gun. But in real life, sexual assault is all too common and usually involves someone you know. In fact, more than two in three rapes are committed by a friend or acquaintance, and more than half occur within a mile of the victim’s home.1 With children, that number is even higher: almost 90 percent of children who are sexually abused know their abuser, and in one in four cases, the perpetrator is actually a member of the child’s own family.2
“Too often, survivors suffer in silence, fearing retribution, lack of support, or that the criminal justice system will fail to bring their perpetrator to justice,” said Bea Black, Executive Director of the Women and Children’s Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse in Boise, Idaho. “Many survivors experience depression, fear, and suicidal feelings in the months and years following an assault, and some face health problems that last a lifetime.”
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to focus on preventing and recovering from this serious, violent crime that affects millions of women, men, and children. College-aged women are especially vulnerable to acquaintance rape, with as many as one in four reporting that they had been victims of rape or attempted rape.3 “Blame the victim” myths persist, suggesting that victims were “asking for it” because of the clothes they wore, or how much they had to drink.
But in fact, sexual assault has very little to do with love or desire. People who commit sexual assault generally do so for three reasons: power, money, and control. Because victims often blame themselves, they may fail to report the assault and sometimes even stay in relationships with their abusers.
Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Some estimates put the risk of sexual assault for college-age women at as high as one in four.4 And too often, students must continue to see their attackers in class or even in student housing. An anonymous letter published in Harvard University’s undergraduate student newspaper The Crimson highlighted many of the concerns that college students who have been victims of sexual assault have to deal with:
Dear Harvard: I am writing to let you know that I give up. I will be moving out of my House next semester, if only—quite literally—to save my life. You will no longer receive emails from me, asking for something to be done, pleading for someone to hear me, explaining how my grades are melting and how I have developed a mental illness as a result of your inaction. My assailant will remain unpunished, and life on this campus will continue its course as if nothing had happened. Today, Harvard, I am writing to let you know that you have won.5
This woman’s experience is all too common, leading U.S. legislators to join forces in recommending stronger reporting requirements and improved victim protection for sexual assault survivors as part of the Clery Act, which focuses on campus safety. Schools that fail to comply with the Clery Act can face hefty fines.6 An organization called End Rape on Campus (EROC) helps sexual assault victims across the United States to file complaints with the Department of Education.
And it’s not just women who experience unwanted sexual advances. According to a recent study published in Psychology of Men and Masculinity, “43 percent of high school boys and young college men reported they had an unwanted sexual experience and of those, 95 percent said a female acquaintance was the aggressor.”7
Kelly Kendziorski, a documentary filmmaker who told the story of a gay male college student’s sexual assault in her film Yeah No Maybe, notes that male victims of rape also tend to blame themselves: “The story of self-blame transcends the gender of the rapist and victim. It is something that survivors feel, regardless of who did it or how their rape took place,” she wrote in an April 4, 2014 editorial for Huffington Post.8
Sexual Assault and Domestic Abuse
“I thought he loved me,” said Lara M. (name changed), a community college student. “He would criticize me sometimes or put me down, but I thought he was right, that I was the one who needed to change.” Lara’s boyfriend would keep careful tabs on her. He always wanted to know where she was, and whom she was with. She wasn’t allowed to socialize with close friends or family. When her boyfriend expressed concerns that she was having an affair at work, she quit her job as a waitress and became increasingly financially dependent on him.
After she told him that she was pregnant, Lara’s boyfriend became angry and violent. He pushed her down a flight of stairs and kicked her repeatedly, accusing her of cheating on him. Lara called the police. She successfully won a restraining order against her boyfriend, and with the help of a women’s domestic violence and sexual assault shelter, she has slowly been able to rebuild her life.
For too many victims like Lara, sexual assault is never reported or punished: of the nearly 238,000 sexual assault victims in the U.S. each year, only 40 percent report the crime to the police.9 “It continues to be stigmatized to talk about this, especially if the abuse happens in the context of a relationship,” said Suzanne Buchanan who works with victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse as part of her counseling practice. “There is also a perceived element of subjectivity—‘he said, she said’ can be very painful. It’s not like a bruise that can heal quickly. When you’re working through this, it can feel like an open wound.”
A Global Problem
Victims of domestic abuse are not the only ones who lose control of their freedom. Human trafficking is a pervasive global problem, with 70 percent of the 800,000 men, women, and children sold into the black market each year used for sexual exploitation.10 Of these victims, 27 percent are children. Respected CNN journalist and former child model Anderson Cooper recently went public with his own story of being offered $2,500 for sex when he was just 13 years old.11
The Internet has made this far-from-victimless crime even easier for perpetrators. Websites like Craigslist.com and Backpage.com have made sex trafficking easy for incredibly criminals. A recent study of eight major U.S. cities from the Urban Institute found that pimps and sex traffickers earn as much as $32,833 per week, much more than prostitutes.12
Sexual assault is also a major problem for the military, with 26,000 victims—54 percent of them men—suffering from this crime. Of those, only 3,000 assaults were reported to authorities, with women much more likely to report abuse than men.
Hope and Healing
But victims of sexual assault do not have to suffer in shame or silence. “The trauma of sexual violence leaves scars that may never fully heal unless the survivor is able to talk about it and receive counseling and support,” Black said. “We must do more to raise awareness about the realities of sexual assault; confront and change insensitive attitudes wherever they persist; enhance training and education in the criminal justice system; and expand access to critical health, legal, and protection services for survivors. By talking about it during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we hope to encourage survivors to seek assistance, creating an atmosphere in which they feel safe to do so.”
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, take action! Call 911, reach out to a trusted friend, and go immediately to the nearest emergency room. If some time has passed since the assault, you may still be experiencing effects of the trauma—more than 30 percent of victims of sexual assault develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives as a result of their experience.13 Seeking medical and professional help is vital to restoring your sense of well-being. “You owe it to yourself to seek help so that you can recover and have a happy life. Find someone who is not going to judge you or minimize or dismiss your concerns. Then you can explore how it has affected you and start the healing process,” Buchanan said.
Lara will graduate from college in just a few months. She is committed to raising her infant son to respect women. And through counseling, she is building healthy self-esteem and confidence that will enable her to build successful, positive future relationships. “I know now that it’s not my fault,” she says. “Life doesn’t have to be that way.”
3 Koss, M.P. & Dinero, T.E. (1988). A discriminant analysis of risk factors among a national sample of college women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57, 133-147.
7 French, B. H., Tilghman, J. D., & Malebranche, D. A. (2014). Sexual Coercion Context and Psychosocial Correlates Among Diverse Males. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/men-a0035915.pdf