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Reframing the Discussion on Sexual Assault

A woman sits on her sofa in the dark crying after an uncomfortable encounter with a man.

When most people hear the phrase “sexual assault,” they think of a woman being attacked in dark alley by a stranger in a ski mask. Or it might bring to mind a subway groper or a wild-haired man on a bus who presses himself against a woman. The reality, though, is much different. Most sexual assaults or rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. 

The Statistics on Sexual Assault

 

According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, roughly 80% of all sexual assault victims are attacked by an acquaintance. That could be someone they know in passing, someone they’d consider a friend, or someone that would be labeled an intimate partner. 

 

The numbers on acquaintance rape varies, and some organizations list a lower percentage of victims. For example, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA) states that roughly 70% of rape victims know their attacker, while New Hope, a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts that serves victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, show that acquaintance rape makes up roughly two-thirds of sexual assault.

 

This difference in statistics could be related to the areas that the organizations serve. Both ICASA and New Hope are focused in one small geographic location, so their numbers may just reflect the assaults that occur in those regions. However, the variance could be due to another possibility, and that’s that many victims of acquaintance rape don’t report their assaults.

Why Victims Don’t Report Their Assaults

 

There are a variety of reasons why a sexual assault victim may not want to report the crime. Rape and sexual assault is traumatizing, and reporting it would require the victim to relive the event over and over, first to the responding police officers, then to doctors and nurses. If the perpetrator is arrested, the victim would have to explain what happened in front of a judge and jury. Often, the victim feels it’s much easier to just deal with the assault on their own.

 

Another reason may be society’s response to assault victims. In many cases, the victim is maligned, and their judgment is called into question. “What was she wearing?” “They shouldn’t have gone there alone.” “That’s what happens when you lead guys on.” Being victimized by sexual assault is bad enough, but to be labeled a slut in the process just makes things worse. 

 

A third reason why victims don’t report sexual assaults is because they’re afraid they won’t be believed. Recent high-profile events, like the inquiry into Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh, have ignited the conversation around false rape allegations, meaning men who are accused of rape or assault that has never occurred. This is a fear for most men, especially on college campuses. However, the statistics point out that only about 2% to 10% of rape allegations turn out to be false. While there seems to be a strong variance in that number, a comparison of the statistics by Channel 4 news in the United Kingdom found that men are more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape.

The Myths Surrounding Consent

 

Unfortunately, there are still many myths surrounding sex and the idea of consent. Too often, perpetrators feel entitled to sex; either they spent money on their victim, buying them gifts or a meal, and somehow that victim owes them sexual compensation. Other times, a couple will be involved in a romantic time, and the victim changes their mind, which the perpetrator feels is “not fair to them,” and either pressures their partner into sex, or forces themself onto that person.

 

There’s also the idea of people playing “hard to get,” the false belief that the victim wanted the other person to pursue them aggressively.

 

All of this frames sexual assault as the victim’s problem, and discussions on sexual assault focus on ways to not become a victim. By reframing the conversation, however, and focusing on holding assaulters accountable for their actions and teaching children and teenagers to respect the boundaries of others, some real progress may be made. 

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