sexual assault

The Perpetrator Next Door

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?  

  • And more… 

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.

When the News Is Triggering: Self Care for Survivors

It has been an especially rough few weeks in the news when it comes to the topic of sexual assault.  Several women have come forward accusing Supreme Court Nominee Kavanaugh of sexual assault.  There are the ignorant statements in response to this from other political leaders including President Trump (someone who has also been accused of sexual assault).  Then, there are the sexual abuse cases involving priests. Today, Bill Cosby was sentenced for 3-10 years for sexual assault. This was the sentence for the criminal case involving one of the women who came forward. For survivors of sexual assault and all those impacted by (and dedicated to preventing) these crimes - loved ones of survivors, advocates, educators, professional supports, and more - it can be both overwhelming and triggering to follow these events in the news.  

Some days, it feels like you can’t keep your eyes away from the headlines.  Then, even though you know you probably shouldn’t, you scroll down to the comments.  That’s when the blood really starts to boil (at least for me).  There is so much misinformation and a general lack of information out there regarding sexual violence and the impact of trauma on an individual. There’s so much victim blaming and minimization of these crimes.  Some survivors choose not to watch the news at all in effort to protect themselves from being triggered.  Some survivors may not be able to take their eyes off it.  Maybe it’s a way to desensitize. Maybe they’re trying to understand other people’s perspectives.  Maybe because they are looking for the comments of support from advocates and other survivors.  Maybe they are wanting to leave comments themselves.  However you are reacting to these events, it is important to practice self care. 

Tips for Self Care:

  1. Utilize Your Supports.  Reach out to friends and other survivors.  Reach out to local agencies and hotlines.  Talk to a therapist. Process your thoughts on these events and what it may be bringing up for you.  Know you are not alone.  

  2. Try Not to Personalize Comments. This can be VERY hard. Survivors may have a part of themselves that self blames or may have people in their lives that made statements that were victim blaming or judgmental.  When reading these comments it can fire up those negative thoughts. These people who are making ignorant comments do not know you.  They do not know your story.  They likely don’t even know facts on the stories they are commenting on.  Breathe.  Scream if it helps you.  Write a response if it helps.  See Tip 1 and talk to your support system. 

  3. Find Balance in Information You Take In.  In addition to the various news outlets, try to follow organizations that provide support to survivors.  These include RAINN, Victims Rights Law Center, YWCA, and local rape crisis centers.  They are also posting statements and articles in support of survivors.  They are sharing important educational information in efforts to make people better informed.  People are commenting words of support and compassion.  Take those statements in.  

  4. Sweat It Out.  Physical exercise is one of the best forms of self care.  It is especially important for survivors.  It helps you to get connected to your body.  It helps you to feel physically strong.  It can help to clear your mind.  Put on those sneakers and go for a run or take a class.  You will notice a difference. 

  5. Find Creative Outlets. Many people benefit from expressing their thoughts and emotions through art work, journaling, and music.  Maybe you create these works yourself or maybe you enjoy appreciating others creations. Find what inspires you. 

  6. Identify What You Need to Heal.  Healing isn’t always linear.  What you needed when you first began this journey may be different from what you need now.  Some find healing through sharing their story, some through a new form of therapy, some by taking legal action (i.e. with criminal or civil charges), some become advocates or educators, and much much more. What do you need to do for yourself at this time?  It’s ok to try something new.  How you heal may be different from others and that is ok.  Take care of you.  

  7. Know your limit.  There may be a point when you can no longer take in the news.  Maybe you need to take a break.  Maybe you need to walk away completely.  

  8. Know Times Are Changing.  The previous administration was committed to improving prevention education and decreasing sexual violence (Obama’s Title IX Guidance).  There are college campuses that provide bystander intervention and trainings on consent.  Military provides these trainings as well.  Some schools are starting these important conversations for youth at younger ages.  The #MeToo movement is strong.  People are coming forward with their stories.  People are passionate about preventing this violence from continuing, about bringing perpetrators to justice, and about supporting survivors. 


This week I found myself getting to a place of curiosity about and calmness towards the people who are making ignorant comments about sexual violence (between the moments of blood boiling).  I wonder what they may have experienced and what messages they have received about these types of crimes.  I reminded myself that it has not been that long that we have been talking more openly about these crimes and providing prevention education.  Many of these individuals making statements do not know how to define sexual assault, rape, or consent.  They haven’t learned about bystander intervention.  They do not know how trauma impacts an individual.  A lack of knowledge doesn’t excuse their ignorant and insensitive remarks. It does help me understand their perspective a bit more (I don’t agree, but I get where they’re coming from more). 

I wish someone would do a presentation for our elected officials so that they would have this information.  The Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women comes to mind as a possible presenter because of the grant work I took part in on college campuses. Maybe then, politicians would have compassionate statements about those coming forward with their stories of sexual assault. Maybe then, they could make better informed decisions (for example, who has the values we want represented on the Supreme Court).  If these elected officials could at least experience the trainings that are now mandated on many college campuses and by military branches they would likely learn a lot and their perspective could shift. 

Who knows what headline we will see next and what statements will come from our political leaders.  Times are changing, not as quickly as I would like, but they are changing.  I encourage all survivors and people who care about this topic to take care of yourself.  These stories in the news will keep coming.  We all have an important role to play in how history is rewritten for survivors through our support, advocacy, and education.  I have hope that things will get better.   I hope that one day when I read an article about sexual assault accusations that the quotes from our leaders will consistently be a commitment to finding the truth and justice or a statement of compassion and in support of healing.  A movement has started. #MeToo 

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. 

The Road to Survivor

If someone breaks into your house and you no longer feel safe, you have options. You could install a security system or even move to a new house.  When someone breaks into your body, you don’t have the same options.  Sexual assault and rape is often about power and control. It can leave someone questioning their safety in the world. They also may question their worth and have fears of being “damaged.” 

How can a person who has been through this type of trauma begin to heal? Two important factors in healing are support and choice. This includes taking care of physical health, connecting to support, and making a decision of what to do next.  Reporting and taking legal action is a very personal choice.  When this type of a crime is committed the person doesn't have control.  Being empowered to make this personal choice is an important step in recovery. 

After a Sexual Assault or Rape - These are options. The first two I encourage all survivors to do. 

1. Seek medical care as soon as you can.  A physical exam will help determine if there are injuries that need to be treated. Even if there are no visible injuries, there may be internal injuries.  A medical professional can discuss with you the possible risk of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.  Preventative measures can be taken.  You have the option of having a rape kit done.  This kit makes it possible to collect physical evidence, which may be helpful if you make the choice to pursue legal action.  I encourage calling the medical facility in advance to make sure there is someone there who is trained to do the kit. They may also be able to arrange for an advocate to meet you there who can help explain your options.  Ideally, seek medical care immediately, however, a rape kit can be collected for up to 5 days after the event.  If possible bring the clothes you were wearing at the time of the incident with you in a paper bag.

2. Get support.  Find someone you are comfortable talking to about what happened.  It could be a friend or family member.  It could be a professional like a rape crisis counselor, an advocate, or a therapist.  Maybe it’s a mentor, a coach, a teacher, or a spiritual/religious leader.  Have multiple sources of support.

3. Take steps to pursue criminal charges.  Report what happened to the police.  Share as many details as you remember about the incident and the perpetrator.

4. If you are in school, you can take steps judicially.  Report what happened to your school’s Title IX Coordinator, Campus Police, or Dean of Students Office.  Different campuses may have different resources and procedures.  If you aren’t sure what you want to do yet, you may want to speak confidentially to your school’s counseling or health services staff so that they can help outline your options. 

5. Take steps to pursue civil charges against the perpetrator.  The burden of proof and the role of the victim are different in a civil case than in a criminal case.  For more information, see the websites for Victims of Crime and Victims Right Law Center.

6. Do nothing or do nothing for now.  You get to choose what’s right for you

What helps someone get to the place where they view themself as a survivor?  Being empowered to make the best personal choice of what to do is one thing.  The other key factor is having support.  Having people who are there whether you want to talk, cry, yell, or sit in silence.  To anyone who has ever or who may in the future support someone after an assault or rape, I want you to know that to support someone you just need to A. be there and B. believe the person. 

Friends are amazing.  Sometimes we can support someone without saying a word.  It might be a small gesture like reaching out to hold someone’s hand when you notice her mind is elsewhere while everyone else is chatting away.  Some friends are there with a box of tissues and comfort food for a good talk or cry.  Some friends call every year on an anniversary to check and see how you’re doing.  There are many different ways to be a friend to someone who is healing.  Whatever type of support you offer, remember that being there is making a difference in your friend’s recovery. Thank you. 

There is no right or wrong way to react after experiencing a sexual assault or rape.  There may be changes in behavior, emotions, thought process, and more.  There may not be.  Everyone is different.  People choose to cope or to not cope in all sorts of ways. There’s no set timeline for the healing process.  What that healing looks like may change at different points in a person’s life.  But it is possible to heal.  It is possible to find your way back to yourself. Though who that person is may change a bit. 

Some people find their way to healing by taking steps towards bringing their perpetrator to justice.  Some find it through exercise and self-defense classes.  Some people become involved in educating others or become advocates for other survivors.  Some may speak at events to bring awareness to this topic.  Some people become really amazing friends to others who go through similar experiences.  There are many possibilities.

You get to choose what it means to you to be a survivor.  Only you really know where you are on your healing journey.  But know that you don’t have to be in it alone.  After a sexual assault or a rape it may feel that way at first.  It may feel like there was an invasion to your home and you may feel vulnerable.  Your house isn’t the only one on the street though.  You are part of a community and you have neighbors (i.e. friends, law enforcement, counselors) who can help make your home feel safe again. 

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Student Development & Counseling Center Staff at Take Back the Night 2010

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Student Development & Counseling Center Staff at Take Back the Night 2010

I’m not a stranger to the dark
hide away, they say
‘cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are…
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh
This is me
and I know that I deserve your love
‘cause there’s nothing I’m not worthy of
— This Is Me, The Greatest Showman

This is the third in my series of blogs for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month 2018. 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. These three blogs were meant to be an introduction and an overview. There will be more blogs on this topic in the future. There's a lot I could write about. If there are specific things you want to learn more about please let me know in the comments.

Wanna Make Out?

I remember my first time.  There was a look exchanged, a smile… In my head I’m excitedly thinking, “Is this really going to happen?” Then there’s a kiss, a touch…and then IT’S HAPPENING. As I type this, Meatloaf’s song Paradise by the Dashboard Light is going through my head.  

What is consent? How do we know we have consent for sex?  It could look something like this….

That’s one of my favorite clips that we showed when teaching college students about consent back when I worked in higher education.  It’s hilarious and memorable.  That’s the point!  In reality consent doesn’t exactly happen like that.  I’ve never had a lawyer show up in the bedroom. But what stops us from having these conversations to be clear about what we are hoping to do and make sure that is also what our partner wants to do?  Maybe it’s because the sex education we had in school looked something like this… 

For some of us this may not be too far from the truth.  Why was it so often that the gym teacher also taught health?  What I remember the most from that class was the gym teacher showing us how to put a condom on a banana and learning about STDs.  As Coach Carr said if you have sex “you will get Chlamydia and die”.  To say that sex education was lacking a lot of key information is an understatement. 

Fast forward to college… I miss college.  The freedom. Living with your closest friends.  Studying things you are excited about.  The concerts, sports, activities, and the parties… My roommates and I had what we called “morning reflection.” We would gather in our living room and discuss what happened the previous night.  Sometimes those conversations would include who hooked up with whom.  Sometimes the stories were shared with excitement, but sometimes there was a different feeling, a yucky feeling.  I’m not talking about regret or instances of “beer goggles.”  We began to identify who was “shady” and who you had to be careful of because they might try to give you lots of alcohol and make a move. 

When I was in college (and it wasn’t THAT long ago), we didn’t have the language to talk about sexual assault.  It wasn’t until years later when I became a therapist and an educator that it clicked. That person wasn’t just “shady” they were a sexual predator.  That yucky feeling was because what happened was sexual assault or rape. 

These events, these crimes, don’t just happen on our school campuses or when we are a certain age.  They happen at social events or when we are out with friends or even in our own homes.  It’s usually not a creepy stranger that suddenly jumps out of the bushes or an ally to attack us.  That’s what I thought a rapist was when I was younger.  The reality is that often times it’s someone we know. 

Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.

1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence.  Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely

About 3% of American men – 1 in 33 – have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted.

55% of sexual assaults occur at or near the victim’s home and 12% at or near a relative’s home.

7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.

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 www.rainn.org

When I finally had the language to talk about sexual violence, I talked a lot.  Events from the past suddenly became clear and there was some relief in being able to clearly identify what had happen.  I loved working on a college campus that was taking a stance to prevent sexual violence on campus by having discussions about consent, bystander intervention, and how to support someone if they experience a sexual assault or rape.  When speaking with friends, I was shocked at how many others had experienced similar situations.  I would think to myself, “why don’t we talk about this more.” The answer is often because of the shame and victim blaming that can happen. 

We have all heard statements like – if you weren’t wearing that, if you didn’t drink, if you didn’t go to his apartment…. I think we try to make sense of events that don’t make sense.  We try to think of what could be done to prevent ourselves from ever being the victim of sexual violence.  We want to be in control.  The reality of sexual violence is that someone has taken away our control and our power.  We should be able to run around stark naked with a drink in hand and not have to worry about being sexually violated.  We would probably get arrested for public nudity and public intoxication.  BUT we should not have to worry about being raped.  

After the sexual misconduct story involving Aziz Ansari appeared in the news, one of my college roommates sent me a text asking what I thought.  She said she liked him as an actor/comedian and wasn’t sure what to think.  My response started with that I wasn’t there so I don’t know all the facts of what happened.  The articles that I read made it sound like Aziz thought his date was interested in sex because of non-verbal cues.  When he reached out to her later, he learned that was not what she wanted. Her experience of the night was very different than his.  He had no idea that was her experience and he expressed feeling awful.  I have compassion for Aziz.  It’s hard to read non-verbals.  This is why we need to have the conversation.  There needs to be verbal consent. 

Why don’t we always have these conversations?  I have heard some say that it will ruin the mood.  Please (insert eye roll emoji).  I remember instances of having the conversation with potential partners.  They went something like “Do you want to have sex?  I think we should maybe have sex. Do you want to?” Then when the answer was yes, hallelujah was there excitement and those clothes could not come off fast enough.  If anything knowing with certainty that a partner does want to have sex increases the thrill because we KNOW it’s going to happen.  See, we don’t want to operate on assumptions. To quote a former colleague, we want “an Enthusiastic HELL YES!!!” If you want to take your sexual experience to the next level, ask what exactly what your partner wants to do sexually.  You never know unless you ask AND you could be pleasantly surprised to know something is on the table that you wouldn’t have thought of.

Finally, we are having conversations about consent.  Thank you Joe Biden for champion the Obama administration’s “It’s on us” campaign to end sexual assault on campus and in the workplace.  Bystander intervention and consent is often a part of new student orientation at college campuses.  I hope more high schools and middle schools are having similar dialogues.  I hope more parents are having conversation with their children about sex and respect.  Abstinence only education does not work.  Yes teach your children about values whether they are influenced by your spiritual beliefs or family morals.  But also, teach them the facts, how to stay safe, and what consent is.  Let them make their own informed decisions and let them know that whatever happens they can come talk to you. 

A lot has happened since my first time.  I’m no longer meeting guys at parties or at the bar for one.  My typical Friday night includes pizza and a movie at home on the couch with my husband and our dogs.  There may be a look exchanged or a smile.  Then, I’ll say to my husband “wanna make out?” He’ll scoot over and I’ll giggle.  Then suddenly Marvin Gaye’s song Let’s Get It On will start playing in my head…. 

This is the second in my series of blogs for 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.