Not that long ago, if you’d asked someone what sexual assault was, they’d probably have described a rape—a situation where a woman is attacked by a man she doesn’t know who forces her to have sex. Of course that is assault, but our understanding has definitely evolved…except for the ways in which it hasn’t.
We now know that sexual violence covers a whole lot of territory. It might mean forced intercourse or oral sex, but those who identify as women experience all kinds of gender-based sexual violence that causes lasting harm. First, though, let’s be clear: Any sexual contact you don’t want is sexual assault, and it’s against the law. Being forced to kiss or touch someone when you don’t want to, being forced to look at their genitals, or being touched in a way you don’t want are all examples of sexual assault.
And sadly, with the misuse of the internet and especially social media, some men and boys have found new avenues to harass, intimidate, control and hurt women and girls in sexualized ways. They text an unwanted photo of their crotch. They share images of a woman being fondled while she’s passed out. They post videos of sex, consensual or not, as a way to get revenge.
Besides the cruelty and criminality of these actions, what else unites them? That the women and girls involved never asked for any of it. It’s right in the definition—“unwanted.” Any reasonable person knows that women don’t want their photo, especially in intimate situations, to be shared without their consent, nor do they want to receive sexual texts or social media messages they didn’t ask for.
May is Sexual Assault Prevention Month in Canada. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to commit sexual violence, whether in person or online, but you still have a part to play. What can you do?
Any time you hear someone hinting or stating that a woman is partly responsible for her assault because of what she was wearing or how much she drank or who she was hanging out with, you need to jump in and say “No one asks for it!” It’s also a good time to emphasize who actually is responsible for forcing unwanted contact on someone else—the attacker. If she didn’t consent, he shouldn’t have done it. Period.
People of all genders need to speak up, because studies show that for every 1,000 sexual assaults against women in Canada, fewer than 50 are reported, mainly because the survivors don’t think they will be believed or supported. If they knew they wouldn’t be shamed or made to feel like they were at fault for someone else’s behaviour, that they’d be believed and supported, how many more would come forward? And how much worse is the situation for trans women, women who are poor or homeless, and women of colour?
The theme for this May is “No one asks for it!” That’s a good phrase to remember. Women and girls who experience sexual assault don’t want it, didn’t bring it on themselves, and definitely didn’t ask for it.
By Nancy Payne