Imagine something extremely violent happening to you in which you have no control over, no matter how much you protested. Imagine feeling physically violated, with your previous ideas of personal safety, security and trust completely desecrated. Imagine feeling paralyzed with fear and imagine what your state of mind might be like if you were too scared to report the crime. Imagine your life or the lives of your family being threatened if you do report the crime. Imagine getting up the nerve to report it, but then you are judged and re-victimized every step of the way. Imagine others not believing you, playing down what happened to you, blaming you as if the crime against you was your own fault, and your assailant receiving no consequences. Now, imagine if what happened to you was sexual assault. What would you do? Where and to whom would you turn for help? What if this happened to your loved ones or even to your child?
This April marks the twenty-first annual Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and we need to draw attention to the prevalence of it, as well as educate people and our communities about how to prevent it. In the United States, sexual assault takes place every 68 seconds. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the U.S. alone, nearly one in five women and one in 67 men have been raped at some time in their lives, and one in four girls and one in twenty boys is sexually abused by the age of 17.
Adults and children alike easily use screens, technology, and social media to connect us with others. Sexual harassment, abuse, and assault can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, including in online spaces and social media platforms. But unfortunately, the harassment, cyberbullying, and sexual abuse happening all over are seen as unavoidable online behaviors. Online harassment, including online sexual harassment is an extensive issue, with one in four U.S. adults having faced some sort of online harassment, and 6% having faced sexual harassment online specifically.
First and most foremost, it's imperative to state that sexual assault is the perpetrator's fault only and avoid victim-blaming all together because it is NEVER the fault of the survivor. Victim blaming can include comments and questions like, “Are you sure that’s what really happened?”, “He/She would never have done that to you”, "Why didn't you report what happened?", “Were you drinking?”, "You shouldn't have gone to that party", or "What were you wearing?" While these questions and comments may not be made with ill intentions, they can still be very damaging and re-victimizing because they shift the focus away from the issue at hand and contribute even more to victims’ self-blaming.
The impacts of sexual assault can be long-term, lasting far beyond the event itself. Survivors usually blame themselves, are very likely to struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and are more prone to face several other health conditions, including but not limited to anxiety, eating disorders, substance use disorders, sleep disorders, and depression.
We all need some sort of a support network to help us work through the struggles in our lives and when we’ve been impacted by severe trauma, support from others is extremely important in a person's healing process. This may include a combination of trauma-informed therapy with an individual therapist, group therapy, and peer support. You may be able to find a support group for survivors of sexual assault in person or online, and these groups are often free. A trauma-informed therapist can be found by searching the web, asking your doctor for a referral, contacting your insurance company, or signing up for an online therapy website. If you are currently a student in a college or university, you may be able to find resources on-campus. Also, sexual assault advocates can offer one-on-one personal advocacy and help you walk through the legal and judicial system, as well as help with finding the right resources for you and your needs.
Together, we can make a difference to build inclusive, safe, and respectful, thriving communities for us and our children, both online and off. We can shape online communities to be free from sexual harassment, abuse, and assault by practicing digital consent, intervening when we see harmful behaviors, and promoting online communities that value inclusion, safety, and respect. Talk to your children and let them know about concerns and the plausible dangers of what can happen both online and in the real world.
We must do all of what we can to prevent sexual assault from ever happening in the first place. Hi-Line’s Help for Abused Spouses (HLHAS) in Conrad, MT breaks the silence and stops the cycle of violence by helping others improve personal and professional reactions, giving a voice and support to survivors and their families, and offering as many services, resources, and referrals as we can to survivors. We can also provide a multitude of training workshops to promote public awareness and education. For additional information and resources on Sexual Assault Awareness Month, call Hi-Line’s Help for Abused Spouses at 406-278-3372 or check out: https://www.nsvrc.org/saam