Rape and Sexual Assault

By OBOS Violence & Abuse Contributors | October 15, 2011

Sexual assault is any kind of sexual activity committed against another person without that person’s consent—for example, vaginal, oral, or anal penetration, inappropriate touching, forced kissing, child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or exhibitionism.

Force or threat of force may be used to gain the person’s compliance, but this is not always the case. What is legally considered sexual assault varies by the laws that are in effect where the assault takes place.

Because rape is one of the most common forms of sexual assault, many people use the terms rape and sexual assault interchangeably. Rape too is defined slightly differently in each state. Most state laws define rape as penetration with the use of force and without the person’s consent.* Penetration in the vagina, anus, or mouth can be committed with a body part or instruments such as bottles or sticks.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), each year in the United States there are approximately 237,868 victims of sexual assault. About 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and 38 percent of victims knew or were in a relationship with their attacker.

Rape can be committed against us at any age, but girls and young women are at particular risk. According to RAINN, 44 percent of victims are under age 18.

During rape, as in any sexual assault, survival is the primary instinct, and we protect ourselves as best we can. Some women choose to fight back; others do not. Choosing not to fight back is also a survival strategy.

Women are often blamed for rape and attempted rape. The media, and even family and friends, may look for what we did to encourage it.

Because we live in a culture that blames women for sexual violence and downplays the actions of perpetrators, and because so few of us get comprehensive sex education that would teach us about rape, we may not realize that we have been sexually assaulted until sometime after the incident(s).

No one had a frank discussion with me about how abuse happens. I had no idea what to do when I found myself in an abusive situation and could not even identify what was happening as abusive because I foolishly believed that you can only be abused if you are weak or stupid, and I saw myself as intelligent and strong.

This does not mean that the assault was not real, but simply that cultural messages are difficult to unlearn.

“‘Rape’ is only four letters, one small syllable,” writes Racialicious editor Latoya Peterson in Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, “and yet it is one of the hardest words to coax from your lips when you need it most.”

Having been taught as teens that rape involved attack by a stranger, Peterson and her friends experienced many assaults that they did not recognize as sexual assault:

“Being pressured into losing your virginity in a swimming pool pump room to keep your older boyfriend happy; waking up in the night to find a trusted family friend in bed with you; having your mother’s boyfriend ask you for sexual favors; feeling the same group of boys grope you between classes, day after day after day.” Peterson and her friends told no adults about these assaults. “After all, who could we tell? This wasn’t rape—it didn’t fit the definitions. This was not-rape. We should have known better.”

In the same anthology, Yes Means Yes!, Cara Kulwicki, who was repeatedly assaulted by her long-term boyfriend, experienced a similar sense of disconnect:

At that time I knew that rape and physical assault were inexcusable acts of violence generally committed against women. I just didn’t realize that what was being done to me was rape. For that reason, it took me years to realize why I felt so traumatized.

When rape happens in a long-term relationship, it is a form of domestic abuse and support can be particularly difficult to find. For more information, see “Intimate Partner Violence.”

“Gray Rape”

Anti-rape activists have worked for years to make date (or acquaintance) rape understood as the crime that it is. Then in 2007, a Cosmopolitan article by Laura Sessions Stepp, “A New Kind of Date Rape,” stirred the waters by asserting that “gray rape” “falls somewhere between consent and denial” and happens owing to “casual sex, hookups, missed signals, alcohol.”

By implying that certain rapes happen because of miscommunication or because of what a woman does, the idea of gray rape influenced many people and gave victim blamers fresh fodder. The term gray rape masks the reality that any nonconsensual sexual activity is sexual violence, period. It makes it easier for us to blame ourselves (and for others to blame us) for all but the most obvious sexual assault. Gray rape is really date or acquaintance rape with a misleading name.

Sometimes we don’t want to think of unwanted sexual activity as rape, because we don’t want to see ourselves as victims. Yet by not seeing nonconsensual sex for what it is— sexual assault—we risk feeling the effects for a long time, and we also risk not knowing what wanted, consensual sex can feel like.

__________________________________________________

Notes

* The term statutory rape is a legal term that describes sexual activity where one participant is below the age required to legally consent to sex. In most states, the age of consent for sex is between sixteen and eighteen. Even if a child or teen says yes to having sex, the law considers the act to be rape. [back to text]