Sometimes at CAV, we get a call from someone upset and saying, "I'm not sure, but I think I might have been sexually assaulted." Not knowing is nothing to be ashamed of. The crime of sexual assault comes in many forms and is perpetrated under a variety of circumstances.
When we hear the words sexual assault, our imagination often goes right to our stereotype of what rape is and we discount any activity short of that. Common stereotypes involve a (male) stranger attacking (a female) and forcing penis/vagina intercourse; many imagine a weapon used. While that does happen, it is not the typical sexual assault. Approximately 86 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, trusts and often cares about (friend, date, neighbor, relative, co-worker, etc.). Under the law, sexual assault can include a wide range of unwanted sexual contact: forced penetration (vaginal, anal, mouth) with a body part or item, forced kissing, unwanted touching, incest, child molestation and being forced to perform or submit to a sexual act.
People who have been sexually assaulted can feel embarrassed, ashamed or confused because they were assaulted by their date, or they were using alcohol or drugs, or because of what they were wearing or how they were acting. They are often told by the person assaulting them that they are being dramatic or overreacting, that they had wanted it. Common myths and stereotypes can really confuse the issue.
Because we are socialized to see rape as involving forced sex between two strangers, there may be reluctance to define a partner they care about as a "rapist." Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners at Holy Cross Hospital tell CAV they sometimes hear victims say, "I don't want to get them into trouble. I don't want to cause a problem." In this way, they are shifting the blame onto themselves, away from the person who committed the crime against them. (Reporting to law enforcement is not a requirement to get services from SANE or from CAV.)
A common form of unwanted sexual contact between dating, cohabitating or married partners is called Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (IPSV). One partner may not be physically battering, but is coercing or forcing their partner to engage in sex as an act of the assailant's power, control and aggression. Some offenders even force pregnancies or intentionally infect their partners with sexually transmitted infections/diseases (STIs/STDs).
Partner perpetrators commonly use many tactics, including sexual violence, to humiliate, punish and take "full" ownership of their partners. People living with IPSV may face a host of other behaviors they would know would not be acceptable if committed by strangers, such as their genitalia or breasts being hurt, being forced to touch the perpetrator sexually, and degrading name-calling.
Sometimes in this type of situation there are other forms of coercion, which may include implied or blatant threats of harm to the partner or loved ones, including pets, relentless pressure on the partner, accusations of distrust and disloyalty, self-pitying accounts of betrayal by former partners - anything that might manipulate the partner to make them submit.
If you have been forced or coerced into sexual contact against your will, recently or in your past, you were sexually assaulted, and it is not your fault. You can talk to someone at CAV's confidential, free 24-hour Helpline, 575-758-9888, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
Malinda Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence (CAV) which offers free confidential support and assistance for child and adult survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and child and elder abuse; community and school violence prevention programs; re-education groups for people using power and control in their relationships; counseling; shelter; transitional housing; and community thrift store. To talk or get information on services, call CAV's 24-hour hotline at 575-758-9888 or TaosCAV.org.