By Erin Bockstael
Content warning: Discusses preventing sexual assault.
Is it possible to make sure that you are never the victim of a sexual assault?
Sexual violence and sexual assault are always the fault of the person who assaults, and never the responsibility of the person who is the victim. However, understanding the dynamics of sexual assault can help reduce risk and help with healing if it does happen.
It’s important to note that these strategies may be useful to some people in some situations. We don’t want to imply that anyone should have to use them in order to be safe and avoid sexual assault. We also acknowledge that reactions to assault vary; it’s common for people to need time to process what is happening and to not react immediately in the situation.
At the University of Windsor, Dr. Charlene Senn has created a program that offers female students information and skills to help prevent sexual violence. A study of the program delivered some stark and surprising results: students in the prevention program were significantly less likely to experience sexual assault than their peers in a safety education program who were given information pamphlets about sexual assault. In fact, students in the pamphlet group were twice as likely to be sexual assaulted than those in the prevention skills program, and over 65% more likely to experience an attempted rape or sexual assault.
At the recent Sexual Violence Knowledge Exchange in Winnipeg, Tracy Porteous of the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia reflected on the best way to educate people about sexual assault and self-defense:
“Any self-defense course that would be useful and responding to the reality of sexual assault is going to be helping women celebrate their sexual fabulousness, to be sex-positive, to have conversations about setting healthy sexual boundaries, to help women be conscious of the fact that they can say no.”
In most sexual assaults, the assaulter has power over the victim. The power can physical, but can also come from social status, financial status, race, or ability. Power is not just force; many who assault gain power over their victims by being in a social relationship with them. Queer people (those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited, gender non-conforming, intersex or asexual) are often targeted by assaulters because they are seen as having less power, less likely to disclose, and less likely to get justice.
Porteous comments: “The vast focus needs to be on what do you do in a situation where somebody that you care about, somebody that you know, somebody that you are kind of attracted to, or somebody that you even love is aggressing upon you, and going past this terrible point, so I think on the whole continuum is what we need to be focusing on.”
Women are often told not to walk home alone at night, but most sexual assaults are committed by someone they know than by random strangers. While it is important to be aware of our surroundings, women don’t need to live in a climate of fear, feeling that we need to be escorted to be safe.
Traditionally, self-defense classes focus on using physical force to combat sexual violence, reinforcing a myth that most sexual assaults are committed by someone not known to the victim. These classes taught women to fight off an assaulter who is jumping out of the bushes or from behind a car in a parking lot. When the situation looks different than that – when a social or dating relationship becomes violent, or coercion doesn’t involve force – these particular self-defense skills may not be activated.
“We know that forceful verbal defense and physical self-defense are the most effective,” Senn says. “And yet those are the things that, without this kind of training, most women are least likely to use against an acquaintance.”
Learning self-defense techniques in combination with greater awareness of relationship dynamics may be helpful. Knowing self-defense techniques can also make us more aware of our own power.
Porteous describes her experience in self-defense classes as “very empowering because we are socialized as women not to be physical. I’d never punched anybody!” She added that she appreciated being encouraged to be present and aware in her physical body and able to practice acting out in a physical way.
Learn about your own sexuality
Exploring and understanding your sexual interests, boundaries and desires can help you communicate these to a sexual partner.
Knowing what you like to do and want to do can help you resist pressure to submit to unwanted sexual acts in some situations.
Be sex positive
Developing sex positivity means freeing yourself from any shame about your own unique sexual desire (or lack of sexual desire). Abusers often use shame and fear of exposure to control their victim’s behaviour. Learning to accept and appreciate our sexual selves makes us less vulnerable to being manipulated by others. Feeling good about who you are and what you like helps build healthy relationships.
For more about sex positivity, see last month’s blog post. [hyperlink to sex positive blog]
Responding to sexual assault
It’s estimated that 90 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. However, most people will tell someone – a friend or acquaintance – about their experience. The way they are treated after they do can impact how they heal and move forward.
If someone tells you that they have experienced sexual violence, it helps to let them know that you believe them, that you don’t think it was their fault, and that they are not alone.
We can all help create a society that recognizes the harm of sexual assault and that supports and affirms victims of sexual assault.
To talk to someone confidentially about sexual assault, call Klinic’s Sexual Assault Crisis Line (24/7) phone 204-786-8631 (in Winnipeg), toll free: 1-888-292-7565 (outside Winnipeg) or 204-784-4097 (TTY).