On Sexual Assault Awareness Month

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Image courtesy of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). This year’s observation of SAAM marks the 20th anniversary of a movement to “raise awareness sexual violence around the world and to educate communities on how to prevent it.”

First, let us define the specific kind of sexual violence that SAAM is focused on raising awareness for: sexual assault. According to womenshealth.gov, sexual assault is “any type of activity sexual activity or contact” that a person did not consent to. 

This then leads us to more questions. What is it to consent to sexual activity? And what is it to not consent to sexual activity? We can answer these questions by looking at RAINN.org. RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization and a great resource for learning more about sexual assault prevention and safety. 

A person gives consent to participating in a sexual activity when they clearly say yes to participating. Consent can only be given by people who know what is going on and what is entailed in the sexual activity, is not threatened or under duress, is of age, is able to properly communicate ongoing consent and is not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

A lack of consent is when a person gives anything other than a clear yes to participating in a sexual activity. Even if a person does not directly say no to a particular sexual encounter, this does not automatically mean that an individual is in fact consenting to participating in said encounter. Giving consent to one type of sexual activity does not then mean that a person is giving consent to participating in another kind of sexual activity. 

Nor does it mean that the consent is unretractable or ever-lasting. A person can retract consent at any moment during a sexual encounter and all parties engaged should respect that individual’s decision to stop participating in the sexual encounter. 

What consent is and what it is not seems clear enough. There are a plethora of resources out there to help simplify the slew of information given above. As this website shows, there are numerous comics, videos and infographics to help get the basics of what consent looks like and what it does not. 

With all these resources and the ease by which we can access them in an age of digitization, why should we need a month to raise awareness of sexual assault? Statistics for sexual assault should be low given this the access we have to resources

Access to resources is all well and good, but sexual assault is a major problem worldwide. It is this easy-going attitude about sexual assault that is part of the problem.

To illustrate just how much of a problem sexual assault is in the United States, one only needs to see the statistics which can be found on RAINN.org. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. At least 1 in 6 women have been a victim of an attempted or completed rape. In 1998, an estimated 17.7 million American women were victims of complete or attempted rape. In the U.S., 1 in 10 rape victims is male

College campuses are especially dangerous places. Female college students in between the ages of 18 and 24 are three times more likely than non-college females are  to experience sexual assault. On college campuses, 21% of transgender students have experienced sexual assault.

Obviously, sexual assault is a problem and we should be particularly concerned with educating students about given the increased risk associated with sexual assault on campus. But my aim with this article is more than just to spew facts and numbers about sexual assault on to a document – this is, after all, not the News nor the Features page. 

I am the Lifestyle Editor of The Hilltop Monitor. And, as the Lifestyle Editor, I have been trying to guide this page into being something more than just the usual grab-bag of pleasant trivialities. In my application for being part of the editorial staff, I mentioned that my ideal for a Lifestyle page was that it should be centered on trying to answer specific questions: What is it to live well? And how do we know? 

I imagine that this will get a couple of chuckles from the people who know me. I bring philosophy and ethics into everything I do, and it seems that I’m on a personal quest to turn the Lifestyle page into Ethics 101. Still, if a Lifestyle page is inspired and centered on our personal lives, why wouldn’t we want something that celebrates and seeks to cultivate our highest potential? We should want something that seeks to always uncover what good personal lifestyles are. 

I think that SAAM offers people the opportunity to take a moment to reflect on whether or not their lifestyles are in fact good in a way that’s about interpersonal relations. Even more importantly, SAAM is a time for people to reflect about things that we tend to not want to reflect about. 

It is undoubtedly true that a major component of SAAM is to bring awareness about the barebone facts that I touched upon above. What is consent? What percentage of people are survivors of sexual assault? Who is most at risk? 

The facts themselves should be well known, and the fact that they are not is appalling and speaks to the ways in which we tend to engage in a culture of victim-blaming. 

But, I think knowledge, which is what some of the word awareness is trying to capture within the title of SAAM, is more than this abstract knowledge of barebones facts. It’s about wanting to ground the content of our beliefs. It’s about being able to orient our lives, our habits, the ways that we interact with others, based on these otherwise barebones facts. 

It’s not enough to just know these statistics. You have to do something about it – and that’s what SAAM is really about and why I think this article belongs on the lifestyle page. What SAAM seeks to ideally bring about at a cultural level is a lifestyle change in all of us. Knowing what we know, that sexual assault is clearly a problem, what do we do to prevent, to support, to make a difference? 

I’m no expert in the field. But there seem to me to be some very clear ways that we can habituate ourselves into being more conscientious, more aware of the ways in which we can make a direct, practical impact into the lives of survivors of sexual assault and in preventing the perpetuation of a sexual assault. If we are interested in being good human beings, which I think that we all should be interested in being good human beings, then we ought to make an effort to make the necessary lifestyle changes this April to make the world at least a teensy bit better. 

For one thing, I think that there is a tendency to be afraid of the topic of sexual assault, to the detriment of anyone who needs support or resources for sexual assault. It is undoubtedly awful to hear that someone you care about has been hurt and our knee jerk response to this is to try and find a way out of this situation. We may try to minimize some of the damage by claiming that perhaps the situation is not as bad as the person is claiming that it is. Or we may try to deny the situation altogether and tell the person not to talk about it. 

I think this is a rather human response to a scary situation. But if you find it scary to hear about sexual assault, imagine how much scarier it is to be the person who experienced sexual assault. Then imagine how terrifying it is to be utterly alone because everyone around you keeps telling you that it must not have been so bad, or that you should stop talking about it because you’re scaring people. In essence, in trying to protect yourself, you’re isolating someone who has gone through something awful.

You should instead take seriously someone’s subjective experience instead of looking for a way to minimize it or make it less scary. It is what it is – you are not the epistemic authority here, they are. If you feel as though you cannot handle hearing about it, the solution is not to push the victim down.

The solution is to communicate to that person that you do not have the necessary emotional capacity to hear this rather stressful account and then refer them to the proper resources, such as MOCSA’s 24 hour crisis line. There’s no shame in having a limit to the amount of stressful things you can hear – do not overextend yourself as a human being. Do not make the person who is otherwise opening up to you feel as though their subjective experience of something awful is not real. It is real, and it should be taken seriously.

If you are going to listen to someone opening up to you about sexual assault, then I would advise you to take it very seriously. Our interpersonal relations are the ways in which we as human beings ground our sense of selves. If we do not feel as though the other understands us – if we feel alien, or otherwise incomprehensible – that tends to have pretty negative consequences for how we esteem ourselves.

The act of opening up about sexual assault is an act of vulnerability and it is crucial that you use that as a moment of interpersonal bolstering. That means doing all that you can to not judge the other person at all. The simple mantra you can keep in mind to avoid judging someone is the following: sexual assault is not the fault of the person who is the victim of sexual assault. It does not matter whether the person in question was dressed provocatively, or whether they were intoxicated, or whether they acted irresponsibly, whatever that means.

To argue this – which the fact that this needs to be argued is appalling – consider the case of robbery. Would you tell someone whose very fancy house was robbed that they were asking to be robbed because their house was so pretty? Or what if they just so happened to forget to lock up one night because they were really sleepy? Would you berate the homeowner for years for such reckless irresponsibility? If you did, I would say that you’re misunderstanding the concept of robbery and wrongness.

You should focus on the fact that the person was wronged by someone else. The other person is the one who did something wrong by committing an act of robbery. Whether the house is pretty or whether the homeowner was sleepy is strictly irrelevant to the wrongness of robbery. It’s robbery. It’s wrong. The person was wronged. End of story.

I imagine that the parallel between sexual assault is clear enough. I think that if we keep these two things in mind, we can start making important changes in our lifestyles interpersonally based on our beliefs about sexual assault such that we can come to lead better lives. Good, human, social lives which help others to meet their needs. 

This article hardly covers the amount of work that anyone can and should put in to improve themselves this month to raise awareness of and prevent sexual assault. Thus, dear reader, I encourage you to take this piece as a potential starting point for your continued lived inquiry and continue down the path of becoming a better human being by constantly engaging with difficult questions, even when it is not the officially designated time of SAAM. 

Agatha Gutierrez

Angelica Gutierrez is the page editor for Lifestyle on The Hilltop Monitor. She is a sophomore majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas.

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