We are living in the era of #MeToo, when people are standing up to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment, and finding strength to build a community that says “enough is enough.” In fact, according to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, a national survey of Washingtonians between 2010-12 found that 45 percent of women and 22 percent of men have experienced sexual violence during their lifetime.
It is important to recognize that this is a common experience. Also important to understand is that sexual assault does not always mean rape, but rather includes many types of sexual behaviors. The bottom line is that a person is being forced to do things like kissing, touching or having sex when that person does not want to.
Sexual assault, regardless of what form it takes, is never the victim’s fault. While rape or assault by a stranger can happen, many sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, and may even be close to. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 7 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.
In Thurston County, the numbers are clear:
- By the time local teens are in high school, 2 in 10 girls and 1 in 10 boys will have experienced sexual assault, according to the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey of 10th graders. Sexual assault is defined as being made to engage in kissing, sexual touch or intercourse when you did not want to. The offender may be unknown, or may be a family member, friend, or partner.
- Among Thurston County adults, about 32,000 women and 7,100 men have had someone attempt to force them to engage in sex when they did not want to, according to a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey in 2011.
- Among Thurston County adults, about 15,000 women and 2,000 men have been forced to engage in sex, according to that same survey.
- Many sexual assaults, and attempted assaults, are not reported to law enforcement.
Forcing sexual contact on someone else is assault. At its foundation, sexual assault relates to an imbalance of power between people. It does not matter what relationship exists or does not exist between the two people. Sexual assault doesn’t always include the use of physical force — assault can include using emotional coercion, such as threatening loved ones if they do not engage in sexual activity, threatening to leave a relationship, and other forms of intimidation.
Sexual assault can have a wide variety of serious effects on people, both short-term and long term, some of which are:
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Relationship difficulties
- Panic attacks
More information on the effects of sexual assault is available through the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. Regardless of what kind of assault a person survives, there are ways to get help.
You can learn more about prevention through the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. One preventive measure that many educators and organizations are focused on is teaching consent — both the definition, and what it looks like in real life. Talking about sexual behavior is difficult for many people, but speaking about it openly is important. A particularly popular tool for teaching about consent is a YouTube video that explains consent with the metaphor of offering a cup of tea.
If someone tells you they have been assaulted, believe them. If you or someone you love has been assaulted, seek help. Regardless of age, gender, or circumstances, it’s important to remind victims of sexual assault that they’re not alone, and that it is not their fault. There are resources through SafePlace’s 24-hour helpline at 360-754-6300. It’s free and confidential. More resources are available through the #MeToo movement. We can all be part of the solution to eliminate sexual assault in our culture.
Adults have certain responsibilities when they learn, or suspect, that a child has been sexually assaulted. For victims of sexual assault, however, it might be difficult to know what to do — or to make a decision about what they want to do. Every situation is different, and every person has to make the decision that is best for them.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.