The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as any unwanted sexual activity or sexual situation where a person is not able to give consent. The definition serves as a general guideline when determining if a sexual assault has occurred. Unfortunately, rape is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States and the hardest to prove. While social awareness of sexual assault has increased due to the influx of high-profile rape cases, victims still have a long road ahead of them.

One of the major hurdles a sexual assault survivor must overcome is reporting the crime. Statistics show that roughly 90% of rape crimes go unreported. Moreover, victims often have few supporters because their attackers are usually someone close to them and others. That’s why we must support survivors of sexual assault and abuse. We do this by understanding what sexual assault is and is not. We also need to understand how we can better support and encourage victims to share their stories.

What is sexual assault?  And, what it is not? 

Generally, sexual assault refers to any sexual act upon someone who has not consented. Before you engage in any sexual activity, you must have your partner’s explicit permission to do so. You should never assume you have consent. Just because someone does not say anything does not mean they are comfortable engaging in sexual activity.

The best advice I can provide is communicate and do so frequently. Also, remember we have the right to say no and change our minds before and during intercourse. No one should feel pressured to engage in sexual activity. Regardless of your reasoning, it is wrong to force or coerce someone into sexual intercourse. With that said, let’s move into what sexual assault is not.

There is a distinction between sexual assault and sexual harassment. While sexual assault deals with the physical contact between victim and attacker, sexual harassment deals with a plethora of behaviors. Sexual jokes or comments (often referred to as “locker room talk”) are considered sexual harassment. Other behaviors regarded as sexual harassment include:

  • Quid Pro Quo – This is the offering of money or career incentives for sexual favors.
  • Hostile work environment – Fostering a culture of unfair treatment, taunting, and criticism.
  • Retaliation – Seeking revenge in response to a complaint.

How do I support victims of sexual assault?

Sexual assault is hard to discuss. It is even harder for the victims. Therefore, we need to provide a safe space for them to talk about their experience. Survivors fear how people will perceive them after they come forward. They also fear retaliation from their attackers or simply, not being believed. With that said, let’s talk about what you can do to help.

First, listen to them. Sexual assault victims need to feel validated in their feelings. They may suffer from guilt, depression, anxiety, among other physical and emotional issues. They need to know they have a right to feel this way. Secondly, ask them what they want to do. Remember, rape takes away a person’s right to choose. Let them decide what they want to do about their assault.

Lastly, support the victim’s decision. Yes, all sexual assault survivors should be encouraged to report but only if it’s their choice. Support them on their path to finding what their healing should be. Whether it’s counseling, support groups, or the comfort of loved ones. It’s all about giving them the power to change their own lives.

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