Sexual assault and sexual violence are the most under-reported crime in America. The month of April has been dedicated to sexual assault awareness and prevention. With 15% of victims of sexual assault being between the ages of 12-17, this is something high school students need to be aware of and work together to lower that number. We as a community also need to work to make schools a safer place for survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
Sexual violence refers to any type of unwanted sexual activity: this includes verbal and physical harassment, assault, and rape. Sexual violence can happen to anyone, regardless of gender or age.
In school, we are taught about the importance of giving consent within our health classes, yet we are not as well informed on what consent does and does not look like, and what things can prevent someone from giving consent.
Below are a few of the rules for consent that should always be kept in mind:
- Consent can only be given by someone over the age of 17
- Consent can be revoked at anytime
- Any answer that is not a definitive yes, means no
- Consent cannot be given while under the influence
- Silence is not a yes
- Revealing clothing is not consent
- Every person deserves the right to not give consent and have their choice respected.
Sexual assault leaves many long-lasting mental effects on the victim. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, night terrors, substance abuse, eating disorders, and high rates of suicide are often seen among survivors of sexual violence. Living through a trauma like this also can impair other relationships by leading to self-esteem issues, trust issues, and social isolation or withdrawal.
Sometimes it may take a survivor of assault a long time to realize and come to terms with what happened to them. When a person is experiencing a traumatic event such as sexual assault, their brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze. These trauma responses are caused by your brain trying to protect you from something. Often while experiencing sexual assault, the brain will “freeze” and mentally “check out” as a way of protecting you from emotionally dealing with what happened. This leads to gaps in memory, dissociation, PTSD, and can make it difficult to realize fully what was going on. This can make it even harder for survivors to feel comfortable enough to open up about what happens due to how fuzzy and distant the memories feel.
With the support from friends, family, and a safe community, survivors can work through many of these long-term mental effects and continue to grow as people. Victims of sexual assault often feel very alone due to their traumas, therefore it takes a huge amount of courage and strength for them to open up to others about what happened. If a friend or a loved one opens up to you about something that has happened to them here’s how to show your support:
- Validate them opening up to you
Just a few simple words such as “I believe you” and “it takes a lot of courage to share this” can help the survivor feel less ashamed or worried.
- Let them know it is not their fault
Too often, survivors of sexual assault feel a great amount of blame and guilt around the subject. Tell them, “you did not do anything to deserve this” and remind them, even more than once if needed, that they are not to blame.
- Show them they are not alone
Be there for them and listen when they open up. If a survivor of sexual assault opened up to you, then they trust that you will stay by their side during the healing process. Let them know that they are not alone.
- Avoid Judgment
It can be difficult for someone on the outside to watch a loved one deal with the after-effects of sexual assault. The healing process is often long and looks different for everyone, try to avoid saying things such as, “how long are you going to feel like this” or “you have been acting differently for a while”. Healing from sexual assault can be very difficult and saying things such as that can make the survivor feel like they are taking too long or doing something wrong. Instead, just continue to care and look after them during this process.
As a school, we need to let abusers know that the students and staff do not tolerate any type of sexual violence. One of the hardest parts for survivors is having to see their abuser continue life as normal as if they did not cause them immense amounts of trauma. Survivors have to sometimes sit through classes with their abusers, which can be very triggering and lead to declining mental health. Teachers and counselors need to take survivors seriously when they email about not being able to be in a class with a specific person, it’s not just a matter of not wanting to be around them, it is for their own personal safety and well-being.
Our school needs to have safe spaces where students can go and talk about any sexual violence that may have occurred, and be provided with information and resources for additional help, without the fear and shame that can come with a call home. For safety reasons, someone may not be able to open up to their parents about what has happened to them, but still require therapy and counseling. Oswego High School works to inform students about sexual assault and violence by having Mutual Grounds, a domestic abuse treatment center, come to the school and talk to kids during their health and Physical Education classes. This is a good start and provides a local resource that students know they can reach out to in times of need. Despite this, I still believe that the school could do a better job at informing students on sexual violence, and how to tell if someone you know is a victim of this type of abuse.
Sexual assault and violence and is a major issue that many people all around have to deal with every day. Hopefully through spreading awareness of this devastating issue, eventually the high statistics on sexual assault go down. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual violence, you are not alone, and people will listen to your story. For more resources for those affected by sexual violence, or to continue to educate yourself on this issue visit here or here.