A Psychologist on Sexual Assault

When I told a friend of mine I was about to sit down to write an article about sexual assault because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month she said, “Do you want me to bring over a bottle of wine?”

I thought a lot about what she said and how her reaction is a piece of the puzzle of why sexual assault continues to be the issue it is. Some of us would rather numb ourselves, deny, avoid, joke, minimize, run around in circles, put our fingers in our ears–la, la, la, la, la, la – anything to keep from addressing it.

That’s totally understandable when you think about it. Sexual assault and rape strike a profound chord in most of us – even more deeply than war (yes, rape is part of war), government corruption, the poisoning of our environment and global warming. We can even talk about murder more easily. For the majority of us, sex and sexuality are exquisitely personal and intimate, and rape is a violation unlike any other.

So, of course it’s hard to think about. Of course it’s easier to remain in denial. But, as any good psychotherapist will tell you, awareness is the first step in creating change. You can’t actively work to change what you don’t know about.

And since I am one of those psychotherapists, I’m here to help you connect not just to the problem, but mostly to the fact that you are part of the solution.

So, now is the point in the article where you leave your overwhelm and helplessness [here] and continue reading.

That was your first step in being part of the solution.

The next step is to decide you’re going to make a commitment that the misguided and all-too common attitudes and beliefs about rape and sexual assault end with you.

Decide that the denial that helped allow some 55 or so people to be sexually assaulted while I worked on this article and a couple more while you read it, ends with you. (Someone is sexually assaulted every two and a half minutes in the U.S. alone. One in six women and one in 33 men in the U.S. are sexually assaulted. –U.S. Dept. of Justice)

Decide that the blame and stereotyping that helps create a survivor’s shame and fear of stigma leaving 59% of all sexual assaults unreported, ends with you. (Rape Abuse Incest National Network)

Decide that the no-doesn’t-really-mean-no attitude that helps make date rape more common than we’d all like to think, ends with you.

Decide that the misinformation that keeps folks from knowing that a whopping two thirds of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows, ends with you.

Decide that the hugely damaging, knee-jerk blame-the-victim mentality that obfuscates and distracts from the actual dynamics of rape and sexual assault, ends with you.

Decide that the boys-will-be-boys attitude that helps allow women in the military to literally die of dehydration as they try to prevent getting raped, ends with you. (Some female soldiers in Iraq are not drinking desperately needed liquids in the scorching heat after 3 or 4pm so they won’t have to use the latrines at night and risk being raped by fellow male soldiers. The military is doing little but giving lip service to the problem. – Democracy Now, 8 March 2007)

Speaking of Iraq, all us peace activists out there, it’s time to decide sexual assault ends with us, too, because sexual assault is a peace and social justice issue. Just as the invasion of Iraq was not about liberation, sexual assault is by and large not an act of sex, but an act of power and control, of oppression and humiliation of another human being. Like Iraq, it is a life-altering, violent invasion of boundaries.

Working to end sexual assault creates respect for human boundaries. Beginning a dialogue about the shared underlying sociopolitical (and psychological) causes of war and rape can bring about a change in awareness, and ultimately action, creating nonviolence, person by person by neighborhood by email list by country. Decide you’ll do something for the anti-sexual assault movement individually or in your peace and social justice organizations this month as another way to create peace in our world.

Okay, I’ve decided. What else can I do, you ask?

The things you can do you may well have heard before in some form or another. The difference is it’s time–actually, it’s way past time ~ to take them seriously and not blow it all off as bunch of warm and fuzzy babble that doesn’t really do anything or pertain to you.

April is about awareness, so be aware of how one seemingly little thing you do can be very impactful. I’m amazed and humbled time and again when I’m told how one thing I wrote or did months or years ago “clicked” with someone and they changed a long held belief, behavior, or vote. You may not see the change, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t help influence it sometime, somewhere.

That goes for the negative stuff, too. But, we’re not looking for a self-flagellating omigod-I’m-scum-upon-pond scum awareness here, but more of a nonjudgmental, hunh,-I-never-realized-that-before, what-can-I-do-differently kind of awareness.

So with that mindset, think if you’ve ever awkwardly smiled or even chuckled at a bigoted or sexist joke or one about some supposedly innocuous form of nonconsensual sex to be polite and not make others uncomfortable. Now’s the time to stop. One step further is to gently let someone know how damaging these jokes can be. Anything that helps dehumanize a person or group of people sets them up to be treated as less than human. Your snicker or silence implicitly, if inadvertently, gives the message that it’s okay. Same with forwarded email jokes. The zillion negative forwarded jokes out there are all taking their collective toll.

But then, you say, I’ll be the grim, self-righteous bore everyone runs screaming from.

Nah, just be the happy, humble, fun one.

Then look at the messages you teach your children directly or by modeling. Whether you want them to or not, your kids are listening and watching the little things you do on a daily basis and forming a sense of self they’ll take into the playgrounds and adulthood.

Actually and truly stop and notice how you treat your spouse, friends, partner, neighbors, employees, coworkers (and yourself) as you go about your day. If you think your attitudes and behavior don’t ripple out and in turn affect how others treat still others, you’re fooling yourself. (It’s like the trickle down theory of economics, only it isn’t based on bogus theory fabricated into existence to make the rich richer. And it really works. And it trickles in all directions. Other than that, exactly the same.)

Look at what you watch on TV, movies and the Internet with your new awareness. Is what you and your family spend your time absorbing part of the problem or the solution?

Grab some folks and do this together. Like so many things, sexual assault is a community issue, needing community solutions. Let your organizations, churches, clubs, groups, schools and workplace know April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Commit as a group to being part of the solution. Make it joyful–because working for a good cause should be.

Know sexual assault has already impacted you or someone you love. If you think you don’t know someone who is a survivor of attempted or completed rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment, I can almost guarantee you, you’re wrong.

Donate or volunteer at a rape crisis center. Yes, it can be intense. But shot through the intensity is hope and laughter and the beauty and resilience of the human spirit. It can be one of the most gosh-wow, soul-enriching things you’ll ever do.

If you’ve been raped or sexually assaulted and need support or resources, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline. 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

CAROL NORRIS is a long time political activist/organizer, freelance writer, psychotherapist and clinical consultant at San Francisco Women Against Rape whose April 28th 5K Walk Against Rape is another step toward the solution.


Carol Norris is a psychotherapist, freelance writer, and longtime political activist.