April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
(Among some advocacy groups, it’s also known as Sexual Assault Prevention or Activism Month to emphasize action-based approach).
On April Fools, the biggest joke I heard all day is that Trump has “proclaimed” April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month and has plans to mobilize “men and boys as allies in preventing sexual and relationship violence.” The month has been recognized as such in the US since 2001 when activists pushed for a national month of recognition, so it’s not praise-worthy or monumental that the president is acknowledging it. These words about mobilizing men are influential, but they’re not new, and they’re hard to take seriously coming from a man who’s a daily reminder of how society gives sexual predators the benefit of the doubt.
I think about sexual assault awareness a lot. I adhere to it year-round. It sounds exhausting, but I find it liberating. I’ve spent too many years in shame, tolerating the “reality” of an unjust world, freezing up in uncomfortable situations. Now I’m reflecting, writing, and engaging.
When I tell people I write about sexual assault, I notice their eyes widen – that “oh” expression that takes over their face. I get it, it’s an uncomfortable topic. Maybe I should say I write about healing instead. There’s incredible power in collective personal testimony, the lingering impact of stories over statistics.
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I wanted to address and dispel some common misconceptions:
1. Sexual Assault Is Not A “Women’s Issue”
I used to use this label until I realized how it’s harmful to the framing of sexual assault awareness because it places responsibility on women to solve a societal ill that isn’t theirs to solve. Just after graduating college, I helped put together a short video about a comprehensive national study on campus sexual assault. I remember that it was difficult to find straight cisgender men to speak on campus sexual assault because they simply didn’t know what to say. Maybe the issue felt distant to them because they weren’t like “those guys,” maybe they hadn’t given any serious thought to it. Doesn’t that say something? Conversations about healthy relationships and consent require everyone to be at the table.
2. Yes, Sexual Assault Affects Men (And Non-Binary/Genderqueer People)
Men want sex all the time, right? This dangerous stereotype is what silences the narratives of men who’ve experienced sexual assault; some people legitimately think men can’t get raped by a woman, and that’s a disturbing, damaging mindset. But if the only time you mention men getting assaulted is in conversations about violence against women, consider reflecting on your intentions. Do you genuinely care about male survivors, or are you just looking for a way of discrediting female survivors?
3. The Experiences of Sexual Assault Survivors Are All Different
By experiences, I’m talking about the actual assault and the subsequent healing process. This is such a necessary reminder for survivors themselves and for those looking to offer support so that hurtful comparisons aren’t made. If you’re a survivor, never feel shame because you weren’t assaulted “enough” in someone’s eyes for them to consider it an assault. If you’re offering support, just be there to listen. Offering commentary about what you think could have been done differently (or how to prevent future sexual assaults) can be painful to hear, especially when the well-meaning advice is coming from a trusted friend or family member.
4. Healing Is Not Linear, So Shed Your Expectations About It
When I wrote publicly about my own sexual assault for the first time last year, a lot of people reacted by calling me brave, strong, and courageous. I appreciated the comforting flood of support and love, but I didn’t want the underlying message to other survivors to be “You are weak if you haven’t spoken about your assault.” I thought my story would help others reflect on their own experiences, and I knew I had the privilege – in terms of physical safety and a platform – of telling it. Not everyone does, and that’s okay. Sexual assault survivors worry about their public identity becoming associated with “victim.” That others will no longer see them as the multi-dimensional complex humans that that they are, but as inherently flawed. Damaged goods. That’s bullshit, but the concern is real and understandable. Healing is a process, and everyone comes to different stages of it at different times.
5. Affirmative Consent Isn’t “Awkward” Or “Excessive”
Affirmative consent simply means ensuring that the person you’re engaging in sex with is coherent and willing. I’ve heard people dismiss the idea because they think it’s an extra step that will ruin the mood or make them look silly. “So what, we have to sign contracts to touch each other now?” It’s not that complicated of a concept and it shouldn’t be controversial to check in with the person you’re having sex with so that both parties are on the same page.
Over the past six months, a main focus of mine in sexual assault awareness work has been exploring how we can revolutionize sex education to include discussions about consent in middle and high school. College programs and advocacy groups are doing great work with it, but learning to respect boundaries is crucial during development years. Considering Texas has a hard time with even providing the most basic (anatomical) information about sex to teenagers, this is something we’ve got to work on outside of the school system.
Consent before college matters, and good sex ed can only help us in being decent humans.
Got anything to add? What myths or misconceptions have you heard surrounding sexual assault that we should think twice about? Let’s keep the conversation going.