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Preventing Sexual Assault: Understanding Consent

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Last week we talked about April being Child Abuse Prevention Month. However, April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a month dedicated to raising public awareness about sexual violence and educating communities about how to prevent it. Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) was first observed nationally on April 1, 2001, and since then, organizations like the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) have helped provide national unity for SAAM activities.

Here are some facts that concerned parents and professionals should know about sexual assault:

1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be victims of sexual assault during their lifetime
Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, every eight minutes, that victim is a child
8 percent of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 17, and one out      of 10 children will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18.
91% of the victims of rape and sexual assault are women, 9% are men
More than 23.6 million people in the US are survivors of sexual assault
Early sexual violence experiences make children and adolescents more likely to become victims again in adulthood

Sexual assault impacts the victim as well as their family and friends. It is a crime that touches all ages, sexual orientations, religions, and genders. Where you come from, how wealthy your family is, how educated you are … none of these are protective factors when it comes to sexual assault.  The consequences of sexual assault can be both physical and psychological to the victim, and there is a huge financial impact on society.

This week’s blog focuses on consent, which relates to sexual assault because the lack of consent for a sexual act IS sexual assault. Previous efforts at sexual assault prevention focused on educating potential victims about what not to do, what not to wear, and where not to go to avoid being raped. However, more recent efforts have begun to shift their focus from teaching victims not to get raped to teaching individuals not to rape.

The issue of consent became a national topic  in 2015-16, when Brock Turner, a Stanford University swimmer, was accused of, and later convicted of, sexual assault. His victim was unconscious. After his conviction many colleges and universities began mandating consent education for their students. Conversations about consent are also now appearing in many middle and high schools.

So what constitutes consent? Is it as simple as yes or no?

There is no one legal definition for consent. Each state sets laws defining consent, as well as the legal age of consent. Lack of clear consent can lead to legal charges of sexual assault, resulting in a young person being labeled a sexual offender for the rest of their life. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan share these factors about consent:

  • Affirmative consent:Did the person express overt actions or words indicating agreement for sexual acts?
    • Body language, Appearance, or Non-Verbal Communication: One should never assume by the way a person dresses, smiles, looks or acts that they want to have sex.
    • Dating relationships or previous sexual activity: Simply because two people are dating or have had sex in the past does not mean they are consenting to have sex. Consent to engage in one sexual activity at one time is not consent to engage in sex on a different occasion.
    • Silence, Passivity, Lack of Resistance, or immobility: A person’s silence should not be considered consent. A person who does not respond to attempts to engage in sexual activity, even if they do not verbally say no or resist physically, is clearly not agreeing to sexual activity.
  • Freely given consent: Was the consent offered of the person’s own free will, without being induced by fraud, coercion, violence, or threat of violence?
  • Capacity to consent:Did the individual have the capacity, or legal ability, to consent?
  • Age: Is the person at or above the age of consent for that state? In 33 states the age of consent is 16, in 7 states 17, in 11 states 18. Does the age difference between the people involved affect the age of consent in that state? In some states there is a “close in age” exemption, sometimes known as “Romeo and Juliet laws” to decriminalize consensual sex between two people who are both under the age of consent, or sometimes when only one participant is underage.
  • Developmental disability: Does the person have a developmental disability or other form of mental incapacitation, such as a traumatic brain injury?
  • Intoxication: Was the person intoxicated? Different states have different definitions of intoxication, and in some states it matters whether you voluntarily or involuntarily became intoxicated. Alcohol consumption or use of other drugs can render a person incapable of giving consent. Alcohol is often used as a weapon to target individuals and is used by perpetrators to excuse their own actions.  It is important to remember that sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault, regardless of whether they may have been intoxicated.
  • Physical disability:Does the person have a physical disability, incapacity, or other form of helplessness?
  • Relationship of victim/perpetrator: Was the alleged perpetrator in a position of authority, such as such as a teacher or coach?
  • Unconsciousness: Was the person sleeping, sedated, strangulated, or suffering from physical trauma?
  • Vulnerable adults: Is the person considered a vulnerable adult, such as an elderly or ill person? Is this adult dependent on others for care?

What can you do?

Prevention and education are keys to both understanding consent and to preventing sexual assault. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has 4 videos that can help clarify consent. They are available to view at this link:

http://www.nsvrc.org/elearning/decoding-media-messages-about-consent-using-consent-videos-increase-media-literacy

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends 5 strategies to prevent sexual violence:

There is hope! Sexual assault is preventable, not inevitable. Evidence supports that comprehensive approaches with interventions at multiple levels (individual, relationship, community) are critical to having a population level impact on sexual violence. Sexual violence is a major public health, human rights and social justice issue, and we need everyone’s help to end it.

Get involved and get educated. If you have a young adult, work with a young adult, or just love children, help them learn and understand consent and other strategies to help protect themselves against victimization. Explore the resources that are available on the Monique Burr Foundation for Children websites www.mbfchildsafetymatters.org and www.polyvictimization.org and download our free app, “Child Safety Matters” from the App Store or Google Play.

And stay tuned next week when we discuss child sexual abuse, a specific type of sexual assault.

Additional Resources:

  1. National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673)
  2. Center for Disease Control https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/2012FindingsonSVinYouth.pdf
  3. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) https://www.rainn.org/
  4. How to Respond to a Survivor https://www.rainn.org/articles/how-respond-survivor
  5. National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) http://www.nsvrc.org/
  6. NSVRC Consent Discussion Guide http://genprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/31155358/Consent-Discussion-Guide_Updated.pdf
  7. Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at the University of Michigan https://sapac.umich.edu/