Breaking The Silence

How You Can Combat Sexual Assault Today

Reducing and preventing sexual violence begins with five simple actions anyone can take.

Sexual violence is not something that only happens to people in third-world countries or living in abject poverty. It happens every day in everyday areas to people of every age and socioeconomic level. Sexual violence is defined as any type of unwanted sexual contact; it includes actions and words of a sexual nature that are committed against a person without their consent.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives and nearly 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime. Additionally, nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men have experienced sexual violence victimization other than rape at some point in their lifetime.

These are sobering statistics and they point to a significant problem within our society. As human beings, U.S. citizens, and Tennessee Valley neighbors, we have an obligation to address this issue. Here are five simple steps that each of us can take to help decrease sexual violence in our community, nation, and world.

#1: Understand and respect consent.

The common denominator of every single incidence of sexual violence and assault is a lack of consent. Defining consent is simple, but our society’s definition can be convoluted at best and completely wrong at worst.

Let’s clear up any misconceptions now.

Consent is a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. If someone has consented to sexual activity, it means that they know and understand what is going to happen—this implies sobriety—and they are able to say explicitly what it is they want to do.

Consent cannot be threatened, forced, or coerced. It must be given willingly and it can be taken away at any time. If, for example, a woman gives clear consent to sexual activity and decides, five minutes later, that she does not want to participate, she may withdraw her consent and her partner should respect that immediately and without question.

“Consent is never implied,” says Bergen Aldahir, communications and community outreach coordinator at the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults. “The absence of a ‘no’ is never a ‘yes.’ Some people think consent is implied by the way a person acts or dresses. It’s not. Consent is both parties understanding exactly what they are doing and voluntarily agreeing to it.”

#2: Become an engaged bystander.

Much like a student who silently watches as a peer is bullied, a passive observer of sexual assault is complicit in the action. Intervening to stop or prevent a sexual assault can be tricky or uncomfortable but, as members of society, it is our duty to protect each other. This can be done by becoming an engaged bystander.

An engaged bystander is someone who observes a situation in which someone needs help and steps in to offer assistance or prevent violence. Engaged bystanders change the social norms that support sexual violence and empower others to prevent assaults.

In order to be effective in this role, you must always be aware of your surroundings and the interactions that are taking place. It is critical to weigh the costs of an intervention against your personal safety and other factors to make the right decision about how to proceed.

If you witness someone speaking in an inappropriate way or verbally harassing another person, gently call them out. Let them know that you disapprove and that their words are not OK. If you see a sexual assault taking place or potential sexual violence, first decide whether it is safe to intervene. Then, it is recommended that you get support from others around you and figure out what is the most meaningful way you can help. If your safety is at risk, call the authorities and do you your best to support the victim.

#3: Teach and model healthy attitudes.

Perhaps the best way to help prevent sexual assault from occurring is to be a good role model. Always treat your family, friends, co-workers, and the people you come across on a daily basis with respect. If you have children, talk to them about appropriate behavior and personal boundaries when it comes to their bodies and model those boundaries yourself. Never use degrading language about others.

“We live in a society where disrespect is so commonplace. It’s more imperative than ever that we teach our children good communication skills and respect,” says Angie Benefield, program director for the Family Violence Program at the Family Resource Agency in Cleveland. “Not only do we need to teach our sons and daughters that they are worthy to be in relationships where they are respected and loved, we also need to teach them how to love and respect others.”

“I think putting a stop to sexual violence for good starts at home,” says Aldahir. “When children are old enough to understand sex, they also need to understand the difference between consensual sex and sexual violence. We’re catching them too late, and unfortunately sexual violence is now at an epidemic proportion on college campuses.”

#4: Challenge statements that blame victims.

Victim blaming is a huge problem in incidences of sexual assault. Female victims are often scrutinized about what they were wearing prior to sexual violence, whether or not their behavior provoked the perpetrator, where they were at the time of the attack, and whether or not they were legitimately assaulted. This must stop.

Blaming the victim is usually a defense mechanism, says Benefield. “If you can convince yourself that you’ll never be raped because you don’t wear tight clothes, are never in a bar, and never around strangers, you won’t have to come to terms with the disturbing realities of rape. The truth is that almost 85% of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows – a friend, boyfriend, spouse, family member, or acquaintance.”

“Everyone can agree that rape is heinous until the rapist is a cousin, brother, friend, neighbor, or teacher,” says Aldahir. “It can be hard for us to believe it, but your typical rapist is not usually a social outcast. It’s someone who has a social network and friends and is a functioning member of the community.”

When someone claims they were assaulted, we need to believe them and refrain from shaming or blaming. If we can change the way victims are treated when they file a sexual assault charge, more perpetrators of sexual violence will be brought to justice.

#5: Believe survivors and help them find support.

In addition to supporting victims of sexual assault when they file charges, we must provide long-term community support for them. These victims’ stories can help prevent sexual violence in the future and they need support, help, and compassion from their communities. If you know of someone who has been sexually assaulted, listen without judgment if they want to share their experience. Believe them, let them talk, and let them feel their emotions.

Victims of sexual assault may seem spaced out, look numb, seem disengaged from life, or change their stories. They may not want to answer questions or cooperate with anyone trying to help them. Understand that this is a normal response to trauma. “Most people are either in shock or in ‘freeze mode,’” says Benefield. “If we can remember that, it can make it much easier to work with victims and refer them to the proper resources.”

If the opportunity arises and they need help, refer victims to rape crisis centers and counselors who have training in specifically working with trauma survivors. But always allow him or her to make the decisions necessary for healing. “Realize that their decisions may not be the ones you would like. However, the choice is not yours,” says Benefield. “As a friend or family member, the best thing you can do is treat a victim or survivor with care and understanding.”

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