Challenging misconceptions about sexual assault

Last week, I wrote about the importance of addressing the reality of sexual assault on our campus, which we are doing during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We are going to take time to come together, speak up and take action against sexual assault.

Discussing sexual assault is not simple or clear-cut, however. It can be difficult to address gracefully and we don’t always have the right things to say.  Most of us are not able to rattle off definitions or laws about sexual assault and even thinking about having a conversation makes us feel intimidated.

Be assured that you don’t have to be an expert on sexual assault , have a conversation about it, or even change the culture surrounding sexual assault in order to be a supportive friend for a victim. In order to fully support victims/survivors of sexual assault, we have to break down some deeply ingrained misconceptions about sexual assault.

The first myth to debunk is that victims are responsible for the assault. This is completely untrue. Sexual violence is never the victim’s fault, and this is an incredibly damaging belief that can cause victims to internalize blame, guilt, shame, self-distrust and self-loathing.

As friends and community members, we can contribute to this poisonous lie by asking questions of victims that inadvertently put blame on the victim like: What were you wearing? Were you drinking? What did you do to lead them on? Or were you flirting with them?

If you stole someone’s car, you would be responsible for the theft. Period. It doesn’t matter if the doors were unlocked, if it was a jeep and you’ve always wanted a jeep, if it was parked in a dark alley, or even if they keys were in the ignition. You would be legally responsible for a crime, and the consequences of the crime would reflect that.

It’s the same way with sexual assault, but for some reason it’s harder for us to understand that. We search for reasons the assault happened on the part of the victim without standing up for the fact that the assault was wrong and against the law.

This holds true whether the victim and perpetrator were dating, whether the victim was drinking, whether the victim had been sexually active with the perpetrator before, whether the victim had been wearing “inappropriate” clothing or the victim had initially given consent and later changed their mind.

On the flip side, it is important for potential perpetrators to know that these aren’t valid excuses to pressure or force someone into sexual activity. Under law, the person initiating sexual contact of any kind is the one responsible. Therefore, initiators must be aware that they need to take steps to reduce their risk for making a harmful decision for the other party as well as themselves. If you are not sure if the other person is okay with it, consent — a verbal, sober “yes” — is the only way to be sure.

Beginning to communicate these things with our friends, family, coworkers, professors and classmates has the potential to change the culture surrounding sexual assault and gives victims/survivors a safe place to share their experiences and seek healing without judgment. During this month as we take a stance of support and advocacy, let’s be open to listening before we form opinions.