Sexual Assault Awareness Month deserves some serious thought

By Nissa Thompson

This April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month will be observed across the nation. On campus, student and university organizations will recognize this month with many events on sexual violence. But what exactly do these events have to do with you?

One in four women and one in six men are the victims of some sort of sexual violence during their lifetime. This statistic is especially shocking given the popular belief that sexual violence is a problem faced solely by women. Even if you are lucky enough to never be sexually violated, chances are that you will have siblings, friends, and co-workers who willbe.

So what can you do about sexual violence? While no one action or event is guaranteed to rid the world of rape, there are certain things that everyone can do to create a more welcoming environment for survivors of sexual violence and combat the culture that encourages sexual violence.

One of the most basic things you can do is to educate yourself about the myths and realities of sexual violence. As a rape crisis counselor working in the E.R., I find that one of the most common misconceptions people have about sexual violence is its definition. Rape, the street word for sexual assault, is the act of sexual penetration by the use or threat of force. Penetration includes the entering of the vagina, anus, or mouth by a sexual organ, finger, or other object. In contrast, sexual abuse includes everything leading up to penetration. This may take the form or touching or fondling, either directly or through clothing. Sexual violence generally includes both sexual abuse and sexual assault.

Another large misconception people have is that sexual violence is about sex. I commonly hear friends, neighbors, and taxi drivers make the argument that a certain woman “asked” to be raped by wearing a short skirt or flirting with a certain man who could not be expected to control his “natural” urges. Rape is not about sex. It is about power and control, about a perpetrator who may be a man or woman of any race making the conscious decision to dominate and take advantage of a person. No one asks to be raped. The decision to wear a miniskirt and the decision to violate someone sexually are two very different decisions, and one does not imply the other. In fact, studies show that when jailed rapists are asked what they remember most about their victims, they describe the victims’ shoes, not what type of clothes they were wearing, or how attractive they were physically. Why shoes? Because the type of shoes someone is wearing will determine how fast they can run away from a perpetrator.

So beyond educating yourself on the issues, how can you empower survivors of sexual violence? If someone confides in you that they have been raped or sexually abused, believe them. This may seem obvious, but the myths that survivors “deserved” to be raped or that people frequently “cry rape” are extremely potent in our society. It is important to let survivors know that the rape was not their fault, regardless of the situation.

A sexual assault takes away the control of a person over his or her own body. One of the most empowering things you can do for a survivor, therefore, is to allow the survivor to make his or her own decisions. Letting the survivors know that they have options and allowing them to reestablish control helps them regain the power that was taken from them in their assault.

Thirdly, let survivors know that there are many resources out there for those who have been raped or sexually abused. The Chicago Rape Crisis Hotline is open 24-hours, seven days a week, and offers free and confidential counseling and information. You may contact them at 1-888-293-2080. Additionally, there are several rape crisis centers in the Chicago area. The largest of these, Rape Victim Advocates, has been serving survivors for over 30 years and offers free counseling and training on sexual violence.

Wondering what else you can do to combat sexual violence? Donate your time or money to organizations that work with victims of sexual assault and abuse. Rape crisis centers frequently accept volunteers to be trained as rape crisis counselors in emergency rooms.

This April, ask yourself what you can do to help create a world without sexual violence.