April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
While it may seem that the last year has been one awareness after another about sexual assault, most of the attention is focused on Hollywood (Cosby, Weinstein, hey Woodie Allen we always knew about you!) or Washington, DC (Franks, Kihuen, Conyers, Moore, even you Al Franken?). But perhaps through these high-profile cases, the assault and harassment of everyday women will become more well known.
The facts are that there are 321,500 rape and sexual assault victims over the age of 12 every year in this country. This means every 98 seconds another American is sexually assaulted according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). That means someone you know has been sexually assaulted. I can promise that most victims are not Hollywood stars or congressional staffers.
So what? Clearly these numbers are appalling.
But what can the average person do about it?
The good news is that the number of sexual assaults is declining. One of the primary reasons for this decline is the fact that people now feel more at liberty to speak out about the issue.
Using your voice makes a difference. How we talk about sexual violence matters. A victim – possibly a friend – will not share with someone that they feel will judge or blame them. Comments or jokes may keep someone from speaking out.
The truth is that many things we may think about sexual assault are not necessarily true. For instance, human beings do not have a “fight or flight” reaction. They actually have a “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. So when a victim is in a situation that the mind finds overwhelming, one completely normal reaction is to freeze. The mind judges in microseconds whether you can overtake your attacker or outrun the attacker. When it assesses that you cannot, the panic, dread and terror may cause the victim to freeze up or even disassociate as a survival mechanism. So to suggest that a rape might not have really happened because the victim did not fight back or scream out denies completely normal biological reactions.
Most of our assumptions about rape and sexual assault should be thoroughly examined. In the meantime, consider that for your friend or family member, his or her assault might not have happened the way you think.
Additionally, your voice can be used to communicate with kids in a way to help reduce future sexual assaults. Learning about consent starts early. Asking for consent in everyday situations teaches kids how to ask and give consent. “Do you want to hug goodbye?” “Do you want to give Grandpa a kiss?” It is also important to respect kids’ voices if they say no. Even if you were brought up in a family or culture where showing physical affection was a required part of family gatherings, it is important to allow choice and consent as a way of teaching kids how to help protect themselves.
Your voice has power. Learning how to use your voice is a nonstop process. So this month, in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, raise your voice in support of sexual abuse victims and survivors.