The Purple Door: Recognizing sexual assault

Published 8:00 am Saturday, May 26, 2018

There’s a misconception out there that sexual assault is simply another way to describe rape or attempted rape.

Every other type of unwanted touch falls into some murky, grey area where victims often aren’t quite sure if what they just experienced was actually considered assault.

By definition, sexual assault is typically any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient (though the exact legal parameters of sexual assault and the age of consent may vary from state to state). This can be everything from an unwanted grope by a stranger to sex with your partner after you explicitly told them no.

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But it goes even broader than that — sexual assault doesn’t always involve touch. Voyeurism, exhibitionism and sexual harassment or threats are also forms of sexual assault.

What is sexual assault?

Knowing how to recognize sexual assault, particularly in its more subtle forms, can help you better protect yourself and identify instances of assault when they occur. One important thing to remember is that any of these acts — when done without your consent — are considered assault whether they’re perpetrated by a domestic partner, family member, acquaintance or complete stranger.

• Marital rape is a form of sexual assault where intimate partners use sex and physical contact as a form of power and control. The rape can be violent or it can be coercive — a means to impregnate a partner to force them to stay in the relationship. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the CDC, intimate partners have committed more than half of the rapes against women.

• Unwanted sexual touching or fondling (over or under clothing) and any unwanted or coerced sexual contact.

• Sexual contact with minors, whether consensual or not by an adult or other person who has more power than the child. It can include rape, sexual touching, exposing oneself in front of a child or taking pornographic photos or videos of minors.

• Incest involves sexual intercourse or touching between family members who are too closely related to be married.

• Forms of sexual assault that don’t necessarily involve physical contact include voyeurism, exposing your sex organs to others and sexual harassment, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or other benefit, or creating a hostile work environment with sexually explicit comments or materials.

The effects of intimate partner sexual assault

All forms of domestic abuse are rooted in control, but being sexually assaulted by an intimate partner can have different psychological effects on the survivor than other types of abuse. One study found that women who are battered and sexually assaulted by their intimate partner can experience more significant damage to their self-esteem and body image than those who experience violence alone.

Due to the complex emotions involved of this type of abuse, some survivors who are sexually assaulted by their partner may not even identify as a rape survivor, particularly if the assault is more coercive than violent. On the flip side, some who are sexually abused by their partners, but not battered, can be left conflicted about if they’re really being abused.

Cultural norms can also affect survivors’ feelings and reactions to being sexually abused, especially in the case of marital rape. Being forced to have sex could be seen as a “wifely duty” in some cultures, even if the woman does not give consent.

Role of consent

Granting consent is what makes sexual activity and touching OK. Consent means saying “yes” to a specific sexual situation in the moment — it’s not a blanket agreement that, once said, applies every instance thereafter. Each situation is new and you should give consent every time.

Furthermore, it’s important to know that you are not giving consent by:

• Staying silent. Just because you didn’t say “no,” doesn’t mean you said “yes.”

• Dressing or acting sexy. You are never “asking for it” unless you verbally give consent.

• Being drunk, asleep or passed out. If you’ve been drinking or doing drugs that affect your judgment or consciousness, you are unable to give consent.

• Agreeing to one type of sexual activity. When you say “yes,” you are agreeing to a specific situation that you are comfortable with. If you change your mind or the intensity of the activity changes, you always have the right to say “no.”

• Giving in. Just because you don’t fight back doesn’t mean you have consented. If you are being threatened or forced, fighting back could be dangerous.

If you have been sexually assaulted, call 911 or call the Steps to HOPE at 828-894-2340. A counselor can talk you through steps to report the assault and help you find local support resources.

Reprinted from