Don’t walk alone at night. Hold your keys between your fingers for protection. Stay in well lit areas. These are just some of the lessons I remember learning at a young age. Doing these things were supposed to keep us safe from being attacked, from being sexually assaulted, from being raped. Back then I thought that rapists were scary people that jumped out from bushes at night to attack.
In reality, the numbers of rapes when the perpetrator is a stranger are the minority.
8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim
The majority of children and teen victims know the perpetrator.
Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator:
59% were acquaintances
34% were family members
7% were strangers to the victim
For these and more statistics see RAINN.
There are terms like “date rape” and “acquaintance rape.” Part of me thinks that these terms water-down and minimize the crime. Part of me wonders if the intent of these terms were to illustrate that these crimes could be committed by people we know. But why come up with another term? Rape is rape. Rape is a crime.
Rape and sexual assault impact a person mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, behaviorally, and spiritually. When this crime is committed by someone known to the survivor there may be additional layers of confusion and struggle. I’ve heard some say that if it was that stranger in the bushes, it would almost be “easier” (it’s never easy) because you could avoid the person, there wouldn’t be common friends, and more. It’s almost like we think when the rape or sexual assault is committed by a stranger it’s more “clearcut” (for lack of a better word).
Some of the fears and thoughts of self doubt a survivor may have include:
I thought I could trust this person. Did I do something to mislead them?
What does this mean about me and my ability to judge who to be friends with?
If I talk about this, am I going to lose friends? Will people believe me?
My body reacted like I enjoyed it. Maybe I really wanted it. Maybe I like this person.
There must have been some kind of misunderstanding because this person wouldn’t intentionally hurt me, would they?
What if the perpetrator was someone that the survivor was in a relationship with, someone they continue a relationship with, or that they begin a relationship with after the fact? This happens. A partner may take things further than what was wanted. Maybe it was the first time. Maybe it was the 30th. When a survivor continues a relationship with the perpetrator, it may leave friends and loved ones confused.
Why would a survivor continue or begin a relationship with their abuser? Maybe the survivor is invested in the relationship and part of them finds a way to justify or rationalize what happens. Maybe they fear people won’t believe them. Maybe a part of them is struggling with shame and having victim blaming thoughts. Maybe they fear that the consequences (ie social, financial, family, career…) of ending contact would be great. Maybe they hope new memories will outweigh the traumatic event. Another reason may be related to the self blaming thoughts that can happen when the physical body reacts to sexual stimulation even when it’s unwanted. Our body reacts to sexual stimulation and it is beyond our control. What happened is still sexual assault and rape.
The survivor should be empowered to make decisions about their healing process and this includes whether they have contact with the perpetrator. The survivor may want to avoid the person. They may want to take legal and/or judicial action (if the crime involved students on a campus). The survivor may want to do nothing or do nothing for now. They may want to have a conversation with the perpetrator in hopes of an apology or an explanation. Every survivor is different. Deciding what to do next is part of survivor taking back their control.
This Ted Talk tells one story.
The first time I watched this I had a wide variety of reactions. There are some excellent points made. There are some parts that I struggled with. These events, these crimes, can be complex. Maybe we know people on both sides of the story. Different parts of us may be pulled in different directions at different times. These crimes happen and they happen between people who know each other. What happened is still sexual assault and rape.
It would be nice to think we live in a world where if we did everything “right” we could be sure that nothing terrible would ever happen. If we avoided that road at night, stuck together, and held those keys we would be safe. Rape and sexual assault can happen at our friends’ homes, in dorm rooms, at the office, and in our own bedrooms. They can happen at anytime of day and no matter what we are wearing. The perpetrator may be someone known. When these crimes happen, the perpetrator takes a person’s control away. The perpetrator is the one who is responsible. It is still sexual assault and rape.
Things don’t have to stay this way. We can change the conversation about sexual assault and rape. We can support survivors when they share their story. Survivors can heal. We can have conversations about sexual consent beginning at a young age. We can provide sexual assault prevention education and bystander intervention trainings. The person next door could be the person that helps you in your time of need.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. If you have been impacted by sexual violence and need support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in San Diego, call the Center for Community Solutions 888-385-4657. For more information, visit the RAINN website. Contact me to consult further on this topic or to schedule a therapy appointment.