Warning: This piece contains material about sexual assault that may be upsetting to some readers.
Sexual assault wasn't a problem on my radar until it happened to me. But two and a half years ago, I was assaulted over the course of two nights, in a foreign country, while involuntarily intoxicated. This led to chronic clinical insomnia, job loss, a suicide attempt, 16 months of severe clinical depression, and a year off from school with short stints of homelessness and alcoholism.
So, since then, I haven't really had a choice but to think a tremendous amount about sexual assault and its consequences. I can't, by any means, know what sexual assault is like from a woman's perspective, but I've talked to dozens, if not hundreds, of female survivors/victims (different people prefer different terms, so I'll use them interchangeably), and I share with them similar emotions and experiences.
After all that, I've realized that most of my male friends don't really have much of a handle on how serious, widespread, and complex sexual assault is. I didn't, either. So I'm writing this with the aim of helping men, in particular, grasp certain nuances about sexual assault, which will help prevent them, you, anyone from unintentionally behaving in a manner that promotes assault or re-victimizes survivors.
One more thing: I'm not closed-minded about this controversial issue. I hope to hear lots of opinions, and am ready to change my mind if someone makes a good case. Trust me, I'm nervous just publishing this.
People often don't immediately know they've been sexually assaulted.
I realize this can seem counter-intuitive. If someone hit you with a lead pipe, you'd know immediately (or whenever you woke up) that you'd been assaulted. But sexual assault is not just physical aggression plus sexuality. Rather, it is defined as a violation of meaningful consent to sexuality. Often, the victim has to reflect back on her or his experience before becoming aware that consent was violated.
Why is this?
Often, people don't know this definition of sexual assault. They'll explain their trauma in another way. "I was drunk." "I don't choose partners well." "Look at how I was dressed." It can take years of therapy before someone becomes aware they were assaulted. That's often due to lack of informed consent, which I'll explain in a minute. Furthermore, people often don't want to believe they've been sexually assaulted. Victims can be badly criticized and ostracized. Sometimes they don't want to think themselves vulnerable (this describes me).
Many of my male friends don't understand all this very well. "Why didn't she just go right to the police?" they'll ask. Well, sexual assault isn't a crime that, when it happens, the victim simply reports it to the cops, who look at the evidence, find the perpetrator, and have justice done. Sexual assault mostly occurs between acquaintances, often within intimate partnerships, and isn't easy to prove. Hence:
It is incredibly hard to report sexual assault.
The community often reacts: "What did he do to her that she would want to get back at him like this?" This assumes the victim is out for revenge. In fact, reporting an assault is a terrible strategy for vengeance, because victims are sometimes—I'd say usually—viciously blamed. When I started talking about my assault, many friends didn't get it, for reasons I'll explain in a moment. I was furthermore humiliated Internet-wide after the New York Post published mostly bogus articles about my case. It turned out the church that employed my assailant had its lawyer contact the Post's lawyer. Afterward, a clarification that removed culpability from the church was appended to the articles. This is exactly the kind of revictimization survivors can experience.
Yes, victims can feel vengeful. They have every right to that feeling. But every single survivor I've met ultimately seems to have made her report in the interests of justice, not necessarily to hurt the assailant, but to prevent him or her from hurting others. That takes massive courage.
A survivor's story isn't always immediately apparent as sexual assault.
If someone is telling you a traumatic story about a sexual encounter, you might not recognize it as assault. You might be tempted to quickly give your interpretation—to say that the victim is overreacting, or that all's fair in love and war. But the hardest part of the story to tell—the actual assault—often doesn't come out until long after the survivor has started speaking.
That's because she or he needs a safe space to reveal the trauma. It certainly was true for me. The way to provide that space is to listen, and keep on listening. And not to judge. In telling my story, I often heard the words "two consenting adults" before I even got to the actual assault. The art of listening patiently to survivors is something we all could practice.
Institutions don't listen well.
They're universally terrible at handling sexual assault reports, and rarely give victims justice. Even universities, bastions of liberal thought and smart people of conscience, have not solved the problem of how to implement a sexual assault prevention and response policy. Look at the difficulties Columbia is dealing with right now. Businesses are worse, and churches are even worse. Institutions do not want to have a PR problem, so they cover up cases.
Survivors like me have to band together, go public with the institution's poor response, and demand change. We're still working on this project, and there isn't any school in the country that has really figured out the issue.
Many of my male friends seem to think that victims do, in fact, get justice from institutions, and that accused assailants end up adequately disciplined. They usually don't. Mine wasn't.
But institutions can provide some meager justice and support.
Survivors don't go to the police for many reasons. Victims risk retriggering trauma through investigative and judicial processes or having their cases made public. Or, they may not have realized that they were assaulted until after a statute of limitations has passed—that can be as short as a year in New York. Universities, businesses, churches, and the like have internal procedures for handling sexual misconduct claims. But these are an imperfect means of bringing the incident to light, dealing with the perpetrator, and giving the survivor necessary resources.
Survivors are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
They're traumatized. Their grades may be dropping. Maybe they've withdrawn socially. But they can't say why, because institutions are failing them. People around them often assume that the survivor is responsible because the survivor is "crazy." Men have been labeling women as "crazy" for years, very unfairly, as they carry on unknowingly giving tacit support to a culture that forces victims to hide sexual assault. And when men are the victims, they often end up hiding it even more frequently, because many men don't believe it happens to men.
Sexual assault happens to men.
First, I've heard my share of stories in which a man said "no," but he was still physically pushed. Some of them are pretty horrible.
Moreover, I've seen non-forcible coercion cases in which an assailant made advances toward a male friend while leaving out a key piece of information: that she was married, for example, or had a sexually transmitted disease. When he later learned this information, he was traumatized. One friend in particular went into a nonfunctional depression for a year afterward. Consent violations are very often sins of omission, not commission. It's often not what's done that violates consent, but what's not said.
So the definition of "sexual assault" is actually broader and more comprehensive than the ways in which we use the term in common conversation. Sexual assault is a crime defined not only by the action of the perpetrator, but also by the wounds of the victim—psychological as well as physical. Saying this does not minimize the evil of forcible assault and rape, or suggest it doesn't deserve its own category as a particularly heinous crime. Rather, we all must be aware that coercion scenarios can leave victims badly hurt, and that our community's moral standards should be evolving toward paying increasing attention to the emotional aftereffects of all sexual encounters.
Women can be the assailants.
Depending on the source, for about 5 to 20 percent of men who were sexually assaulted, the perpetrator was female. Female assailants almost always use coercion, rather than force.
(I am aware that this article speaks about gender in a heteronormative binary. This is not to suggest at all that sexual assault doesn't occur in other modalities, between people of various gender identities and sexual orientations. It does, and each of those situations has its own set of nuances and issues, many of which I'm not qualified to comment on. I'm writing this article in binary because I'm addressing my male friends, and many of them can only talk about sexuality through that lens. I'd like that to change, but I don't know how to do that in this opinion piece.)
Much seemingly benign male behavior provides an environment for sexual assault.
Some people call this "rape culture." It's hard to define (and a lot of people have done it better than I could), but I've seen it and I know it. Before my assault, I was a participant in it.
In my twenties, I was fascinated by seduction, and went out with wingmen trying to run all kinds of game to pick up women (usually unsuccessfully, and often looking ridiculous). The fundamental premise behind our behavior was that sexual activity is something you have to convince/persuade/trick another person into performing. This is the heart of the failure of meaningful consent.
Here are soundbites of rape culture: "We're going to have alcohol at the party so the girls will get easy." "Yeah, I totally got her to drop her bitch shield by making fun of her looks. She was defenseless after that." I've even heard men say, "I would totally want to be sexually assaulted by a hot chick. It actually sounds like fun." This is abundantly not true.
It was a polite, pernicious form of rape culture at a church that allowed my assault to occur.
You can never know how badly someone has been hurt by a sexual encounter.
You are not in that person's head. So you don't have the right to say that someone has overreacted. And yet all the time, I hear it from my guy friends: "Oh, she's just a psycho."
She's not. I'm not. Two nights in the heat of June—two nights which some of my guy friends blew off as, "Cool, you got a little action"—ripped my life to pieces. I would never have known, beforehand, how awful I would have felt after I was sexually assaulted. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, nor on you.
We're working together to fix this.
A coalition of Columbia students, some of us survivors, are working with the administration to implement University President Lee Bollinger's promised reforms to the gender-based and sexual misconduct policies. We need your help to craft these reforms. Sign the petitions, go to the University Senate meetings, talk to your deans. Educate yourself about the stories of survivors from all communities.
And practice meaningful consent. Check your and your partner's emotions and thoughts before, during, and after a sexual encounter. Never leave someone suffering.
Sexual assault is subtle and complicated. It would do good for all of us to learn more about it. When I look at the statistics, and multiply the kind of anguish that I went through by the number of sexual assaults that are occurring on college campuses—1 in 4 females, 10 percent of reports coming from males—I can barely contain my sadness at the unnecessary suffering. It has to stop. And in that, men have a fundamental role.
The author is a General Studies third-year in the pre-med post-bac program. He is a member of Columbia's Coalition Against Sexual Violence.
A shortened version of this article ran in print on March 10, 2014.
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