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Sexual Assault Awareness Month: History, Facts, and Figures

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

What is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)?

The first official SAAM occurred in April 2001, organized by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). The roots of the movement that led to the first SAAM can be traced back generally to the social activism of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and specifically to efforts of activists in Pennsylvania and the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s to raise awareness about sexual violence, rape, and a full spectrum of women’s issues.

The first rape crisis center in the U.S. opened in San Francisco in 1971, the city where activists held first U.S. “Take Back the Night” event in 1978. The approval of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by the U.S. House and Senate in 1971 and 1972 (respectively) saw a groundswell of support for women’s issues throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The aspect of the movement which focused on sexual assault and sexual violence culminated in 1994, with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The VAWA mandated funding for the prosecution and investigation of violent crimes against women, established the Office of Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice, enhanced victim’s rights provisions, and included a clause allowing women to pursue civil cases against perpetrators in cases where prosecutors decided not to pursue criminal charges.

The civil redress provision of the law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2000, however. In addition, the VAWA expired during government shutdown of 2018-2019, was temporarily reinstated on January 25th, 2019, but expired on February 15th, 2019. As of the writing of this article, the VAWA has not been reinstated by the federal government. Despite these drawbacks, the VAWA drastically improved the way state and local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies around the country investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women.

Defining Sexual Assault

The specific definition of sexual assault is almost always unique to the jurisdiction in which the assault occurs. With that said, most jurisdictions use some variation of the language found in the federal criminal code. While the federal code does not use the word “rape,” many jurisdictions do. The various distinctions between rape and sexual assault/abuse/battery revolve around the relative degree of “unlawful force” or “force likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm” present in the case in question.

For an easy-to-navigate, 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. It also includes attempts to do so by using force or threatening a person with death, serious bodily injury, or kidnapping. Additionally, aggravated sexual abuse 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.

Sexual abuse

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.” We’ll now offer the latest information from the CDC on the prevalence of sexual violence in the U.S.

Sexual Violence: The Statistics

Most people know sexual assault occurs – it’s not some made-up thing. What they don’t know is how common sexual assault, sexual coercion, and sexual harassment are in the U.S. Over the past several years, the #metoo movement brought this awareness gap into stark relief. Now, more and more people understand sexual assault, coercion, and harassment are a disturbing reality we need to understand and address as a nation. The CDC has compiled and published the most up-to-date data available on sexual violence.

Sexual Violence: The Real Stats
  • 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
    • Roughly 1 in 14 men report being made to, or attempt to, penetrate someone during their lifetime
  • 1 in 3 female victims of rape experience it between the ages of 11 and 17
    • 1 in 8 women report experiencing rape before the age of 10.
  • Close to 1 in 4 male victims of rape experience it between the ages of 11 and 17
    • Nearly 1 in 4 men report experiencing rape before age 10.
  • Experts estimate the financial cost of rape at $122,461 per victim. This figure includes medical, legal, and other costs.

Let’s do a reality check on those statistics. Not in the sense that we’re going to audit the source data to ensure its accuracy, but in the plain numbers sense. If we place the current adult population of the U.S. at 250 million – roughly half male and half female – the statistics above take on a more immediate meaning.

The CDC Stats in Raw Numbers
  • About 41 million women have experienced sexual violence and about 25 million have experienced rape or attempted rape.
    • Of the 41 million women who’ve experienced rape, 13.5 million experienced it between the ages of 11 and 17, while 5.1 million experienced it before age 10.
  • About 31 million men have experienced sexual violence and about 3.3 million have experience rape.
    • Of the 3.3 million men who’ve experience rape, 825,000 experienced it between the ages of 11 and 17, while another 825,000 experienced it before age 10.

Another way to frame these figures is to use plain language and common sense: given the large numbers of people, male and female, who’ve experienced sexual violence or rape in their lifetime, anyone reading this article probably knows at least one – and likely several – victims of rape or sexual violence.

The Consequences of Sexual Violence

Victims of sexual violence are at risk of an array of physical, psychological, and emotional problems – especially if the violence occurred while they were children. Documented consequences of sexual violence include:

  1. Direct physical damage such as bruising and other injury.
  2. Depression
  3. Suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-harming behaviors
  4. Anxiety
  5. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  6. Chronic gynecological (females), gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular health problems.
  7. Diminished work performance
  8. Problems in personal relationships
  9. Learning difficulties
  10. Increased incidence of behaviors such as:
    1. Alcohol use
    2. Drug use
    3. Tobacco use
    4. Risky sexual activity
    5. Disordered eating
  11. Increased risk of experiencing additional sexual violence
  12. Increased risk of experience domestic partner violence

The most important thing victims of sexual violence need from others is understanding. We need to listen, support, and offer unconditional compassion and empathy. Many victims blame themselves and live in shame about the incident or incidences. They’re afraid to speak out for fear of ridicule, of not being believed, or of being perceived as weak, damaged, or somehow less than people who have not experienced sexual violence or rape. As a friend and ally, what most victims need is first, to be believed, and second, support in either pursuing legal remedies or in seeking treatment, in whatever form they need, from medical or mental health professionals.

What We Can Do: Next Steps

The CDC created a list five of recommended steps that we, as a society, can take to make an impact on sexual violence in the U.S. We think these steps – while not the entire solution – are right on target.

The CDC Technical Package on Sexual Violence

  1. Promote Positive Social Norms including:
    1. Teaching bystanders how to respond
    2. Enlisting men and boys as allies
  2. Teach Skills to Prevent Sexual Violence, including:
    1. Emotional literacy
    2. Healthy relationship habits
    3. Healthy dating habits
    4. Positive lessons about sex and sexuality
  3. Empower Women and Girls, including:
    1. Increasing economic support and opportunities for girls, women, and families
    2. Increasing leadership opportunities for girls and women
  4. Create Safe Environments, including:
    1. Safe schools
    2. Establishing and consistently applying anti-sexual harassment policies in the workplace
    3. Raising community awareness about sexual violence and assault
  5. Support Victims, including:
    1. Increasing victim services
    2. Supporting mental health treatment for victims
    3. Focusing on at-risk children to prevent behavioral consequences that arise from being a victim of sexual violence as a child.

This list does skew towards women, but that’s okay: so do the statistics. While women are victimized more often than men, we should not forget that men are victims as well. With that said, we’d like to point out that at the moment, men hold more positions of power and influence in almost all areas of public and civic life than women. They’re more represented in politics, business, and in the executive levels of the entertainment industry. The remedy for the sexual violence problem in the U.S. must be a cooperative, collective effort from all of us, but adult men, in particular – given their current structural power – need to recognize their influence and work to help all victims of sexual violence whenever they can.

Parent and Teen Resources

Finally, here’s a list of resources regarding sexual violence for parents to share with their teenage children:

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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