We have to shift our understanding of the ‘sexual’ in sexual assault

Sara Yufa headshotBy Sara Yufa, JWI

In the last five years, 60% of rapes were not reported to police. Factoring in these unreported assaults, only 8% of rapes were actually prosecuted and only 3% of rapists will spend even a single day in prison.

Many sexual assaults go unreported because the victim fears she will be victimized again by peers and insensitive officials. This threat of public humiliation is due to a misconception of the cause of sexual assault, and a fear of slut shaming or being blamed for contributing to her attacker’s sexual desires.

The sexualization of sexual assault perpetuated the false popular myth that sexual assault is driven by sexual desire when in fact, sexual assault is an act of violence, power and control. Making the conversation about sexual desire diminishes the severity of the violence and minimizes the crime to uncontrollable human nature.

However, just as sexual conquests are misogynistically worn as badges of honor, so too have sexual assault cases surfaced via social media as a flex of power and sexual shaming of the victims. For example, the March 2013 case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which the victims’ pictures were posted online, and the similar, more recent July 2014 case in Houston, Texas. In Houston, the photograph was appropriated into a meme of the pose of the victim, and posts of people mocking the girl went viral on Twitter. Until the hashtag was flipped around to show support for the victim, it was used to mock the girl for being caught with her underwear down. No one publicly questioned how she arrived at the situation or why it was documented and made public.

When posts like this appear online, it increases the power aspect of the crime, marking sexual assault as something to be proud of and displayed for public viewing. Not only did the perpetrator rob the victim of her privacy when he assaulted her, he did it again by publishing the crime and forcing the private matter to be public.

And victims of sexual assault are discouraged from reporting the crime in other ways – such as lack of proof, fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, fear that authorities will treat them with hostility or not take the incident seriously, not knowing how to report the crime and a desire to hide the assault from family and others.

Sexual assault in the U.S. is especially prominent on college campuses: one in five women is a target of attempted or completed sexual assault while she’s a college student and college-aged women are four times more likely than any other age group to face sexual assault. Despite these facts, so many sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported. Date and acquaintance rapes are less likely to be reported than stranger rapes – so considering the nature of college social interaction, the likelihood of reporting sexual assault is lower on college campuses. When assaults are reported, universities often handle the case in a way that conceals the assailant, especially if they have a lot of influence at the university, such as athletes or officials.

On Thursday, July 17, JWI held a roundtable on sexual assault as part of its Summer Series for Interns and Young Professionals in the D.C. area. As a female college student, I feel it is important to have a thorough understanding of what sexual assault means and to know my rights and to understand that every sexual encounter should have clear established consent and that consent can come in the form of verbal or non-verbal indicators. It is also important to be an active bystander and step in if you see someone who is not in the position to show consent.

Specific to college campuses, under Title IX and the Clery Act schools are legally obligated to provide protection for students against discrimination based on sex, and provide transparency of crime on and around campus. Each school must have a sex discrimination policy and a Title IX coordinator easily available to students.

This information is vital for both women and men, girls and boys, as sexual assault can happen to anyone. To decrease the number of sexual assaults that happen every year, we have to shift our cultural understanding of sexuality and gender roles away from the traditional patriarchal system to one of equal, safe, loving relationships.

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