The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as, “Any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient” (2016). Sexual assault can take many different forms such as rape, attempted rape, fondling, forcible sodomy, incest, and child molestation.
Sexual assault is extremely detrimental to the mental and physical health of those who experience it, and, due to the varying combinations of psychological and physical symptoms that survivors experience, the treatment and healing process can be difficult. Many of the symptoms and difficulties sexual assault survivors experience are rooted in society’s general reaction to and perception of sexual assault that promotes rape culture, blaming victims, and normalizing or excusing perpetrators.
Sexual assault is extremely detrimental to an individual’s mental health, and survivors of rape and other forms of sexual assault often experience a number of negative effects that can impair their daily functioning. Effects can be short term while others last much longer. Some symptoms surface later or are triggered unexpectedly. Some common effects of sexual assault include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, emotional regulation issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, feelings of shame and guilt, psychosomatic symptoms, flashbacks, dissociation, and suicide. People who have experienced sexual assault are more likely to experience issues with interpersonal relationships, have issues at work or school, experience suicidal thoughts, experience depression, and use drugs.
Sexual assault affects people of all ages, genders, sexualities, and cultural backgrounds. In the United States each year, about 288,820 individuals above age twelve are sexually assaulted. One out of every six females and one out of every thirty-three males will be the victim of rape or attempted rape during their lifetime. Thirty four percent of individuals under the age of eighteen who are raped or sexually assaulted are under age twelve. Nine out of every ten victims of rape and sexual assault and violence are female.
Following the experience of sexual assault, it is crucial that the survivor receives appropriate support in order to heal and prevent the development of long term effects and post-traumatic stress symptoms that can be extremely detrimental to the individual’s daily functioning and overall well-being. Unfortunately, far too many individuals do not get the support and services they need to heal due to lack of available or accessible resources, not wanting to tell anyone about the assault, or not being believed upon reporting the incident. While a number of organizations and movements have been working to advocate for survivors and raise awareness of sexual assault, rape culture continues to be normalized and promoted, and its prevalence continues to be maintained in today’s society.
Far too often, excuses are made for offenders such as statements like “boys will be boys” or that these incidents are “normal” in certain settings like night clubs or college parties, and the multitude of excuses and cover-ups continue to promote victim-blaming. Regardless of a person’s gender, identity, style of dress, intoxication level, and any other factor or detail of the situation or individual, there is absolutely no excuse for sexual assault of any kind.
People in positions of power and fame such as politicians, professional and college athletes, celebrities, and people of high socioeconomic and social status who have committed acts of sexual assault are most commonly excused for their actions or have their actions covered up by use of money, lawyers, publicists, and others. The normalization as well as lack of blame of famous or powerful perpetrators of sexual assault send the message that sexual assault is acceptable which promotes rape culture in today’s society.
Survivors of sexual assault often do not report their experiences due to understandable fear of being blamed or being accused of lying. The process of reporting any form of sexual assault and pressing charges is extremely lengthy and difficult and can re-traumatize the individual and cause feelings of shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and other negative feelings and symptoms. It is so important for people to speak up and stand up for what is right despite the pressure of institutions of oppression that try and keep people quiet and keep incidents of rape and sexual assault hidden and perpetrators unpunished.
The climate of society in terms of sexual assault and violence needs to change in order for rates of sexual assault to decrease and for people to feel safe and supported. For society to change and justice to be gained, everyone must work together to advocate, raise awareness, and speak up regarding these issues that affect such a large percentage of the population.
National Sexual Assault Hotline
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255)
Dick, K. (2015). The Hunting Ground [Motion Picture]. United States: Chain Camera Pictures.
Criminal Justice System Statistics - RAINN
The United States Department of Justice - Sexual Assault
Effects of Sexual Assault and Rape - Joyful Heart Foundation