April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the United States. The first SAAM was organized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) in 2001, which makes this year – 2020 – the 19th anniversary of SAAM. The purpose of the month is to raise awareness about the grim reality of sexual assault, share statistics of its prevalence in our communities, and educate citizens about steps they can take to prevent it.
The grim reality is that sexual assault is real, it happens every day, and it impacts everyone – not just its victims and perpetrators.
The theme for SAAM this year is “I ask for consent.”
This theme is important because it works on two fundamental levels:
- It teaches youth and people previously unaware of their power in sexual situations to “ask for consent.” It empowers them to take action to prevent sexual assault.
- It acknowledges that the crime of sexual assault revolves around the notion of consent. Without consent, sexual contact is illegal: that’s something everyone needs to know, tell their children, and remember any time the subject arises.
We’ll now explain how sexual assault is defined in criminal statutes, which vary from state to state and from precinct to precinct, but for the most part follow language found in United States Federal Code, Title 18 – Crimes and Criminal Procedure.
What is Sexual Assault?
The nuances of local statutes generally revolve around the degree of force present in each case. For a state-by-state guide to sexual assault laws, please use this tool maintained by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Here’s the federal language that directly applies to what most jurisdictions call sexual assault or rape:
Aggravated Sexual Abuse:
This crime includes circumstances when a person knowingly causes another person to engage in a sexual act or attempts to do so by using force or threatening a person with death, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping. Aggravated sexual abuse also includes situations in which a person knowingly renders another person unconscious or administers a drug, intoxicant, or other similar substance without the knowledge or permission of that person and engages in a sexual act.
This crime takes place when a person knowingly causes another person to engage in a sex act by threatening or placing the other person in fear, or if someone engages in a sexual act with a person who is incapable of appraising the nature of the act or unable to give consent.
Abusive sexual contact:
This crime takes place when a person does not sexually penetrate the victim, but when he or she intentionally touches the victim’s genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks to abuse, humiliate, or harass the victim.
These definitions align with what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) call sexual violence, which they define as “…sexual activity when consent is not obtained or not freely given.”
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Sexual assault, sexual coercion, and sexual harassment are far more common in the U.S. than most people realize. The #metoo movement foregrounded this awareness gap, and most people now understand that sexual coercion and sexual assault are part of a pattern of disturbing behavior – present for decades – that we, as a nation, need to change.
Here are the latest facts from the CDC on sexual violence:
- Almost 1 in 3 women experience sexual violence during their lifetime
- Nearly 1 in 5 women experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime
- About 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence during their lifetime
- Nearly 1 in 38 men experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime
- 1 in 14 men report being made to, or attempt to, penetrate someone during their lifetime
- About 1 in 3 female victims experience rape between the ages of 11 and 17
- 1 in 8 women report being raped before the age of 10.
- Close to 1 in 4 male victims experience rape between the ages of 11 and 17
- Nearly 1 in 4 men experience rape before age 10
Let’s put these statistics into perspective. One third of women and one fourth of men experience sexual violence in their lifetime. That means that out of a hundred women in the U.S., thirty-three of them have experienced sexual violence, and out of a hundred men, twenty-five of them have. Or we can put it another way: anyone reading this article probably knows more than one person who’s experienced sexual violence.
That’s far too many people.
Sexual Violence: Risk Factors for Perpetration
One way we can prevent sexual assault in our communities is by understanding what groups of people are at-risk of perpetrating sexual crimes. We know who the potential victims are: everyone. And more likely women than men. We know something else, too: we know about factors associated with the perpetration of sexual violence (SV).
The CDC divides these SV risk factors into four categories: Individual, Relational, Community, and Societal.
Individual factors include:
- Hostility towards women
- General aggressiveness
- Early sexual initiation
- Lack of empathy
- Alcohol use
- General acceptance of violence
Relational factors include:
- Non-supportive family environment
- Disrupted parent-child relationships
- Hypermasculine, aggressive peer group
- History of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse
Community factors include:
- Tolerance of sexual violence
- Weak community consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence
Societal factors include:
- Norms that support male superiority
- Norms that support male sexual entitlement
- Weak laws against sexual violence
- Weak consequences for committing sexual violence
- Norms that perpetuate the idea of female inferiority
- Norms that perpetuate the idea of female sexual submissiveness
Let’s be clear: the presence of one or more of these factors does not mean an individual will become a perpetrator of sexual violence. Not everyone who’s unemployed and has a complicated relationship with a parent will commit sexual violence. Nor will every hypermasculine person with an alcohol use issue. However, the CDC suggests that while each case is unique, a combination of the four risk factors above “contribute to the risk of becoming a perpetrator of sexual violence.”
How to Prevent Sexual Violence: Five Steps
In 2016, the CDC published Stop SV: A Technical Package to Stop Sexual Violence. This package combines data on prevalence and risk factors with a set of recommended steps that everyone – individuals, communities, and governments – can take to decrease the incidence of sexual violence in the U.S. The fifty-page document offers these five action items:
- Promote Positive Social Norms
- Teach Skills to Prevent Sexual Violence
- Empower Women and Girls
- Create Safe Environments
- Support Victims
We encourage you to click here and read the entire package, or click here to read our article from last year that includes details on the five action items above. Finally, here’s a quick list of online resources regarding sexual violence for parents to share with teens:
All four websites offer teens resources that help them learn to establish and maintain healthy relationships – and all four of them focus on understanding and defining the concept of consent. Which brings us back full circle to the theme for Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year:
“I ask for consent.”
Let’s point our teens in the right direction and make sure they understand this vital, empowering, and fundamental right.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.