● 12.1. Theoretical background:
Sexual abuse is the coercing or the attempt to coerce unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to unwanted and non-consensual kissing, grabbing, fondling; pressure to go further sexually despite what the other person wants; humiliating, criticizing or trying to control a person’s sexuality; sexual harassment; exposure of someone to exhibitionism or unwanted pornographic material; non-consensual pornography; attacks on sexual parts of the body; forcing sex after physical violence has occurred; treating someone in a sexually demeaning manner; unwanted violent sexual acts ; forcing the partner into sex work; rape or attempted rape.
According to European statistics on violence against women, in total, 11 % of women have experienced some form of sexual violence since they were 15 years old. Moreover, one in 20 women (5 %) has been raped since the age of 15. A recent survey among young people in the US, conducted by RAINN (the largest anti-sexual violence organization), indicates that in 80% of cases, rape and sexual violence are committed by someone the survivor knows, primarily a partner, ex-partner or a dating partner. While women are significantly at a higher risk of sexual abuse and rape, men also experience sexual abuse: one out of every ten rape survivors are men. Trans persons also experience higher risk for sexual abuse: according to RAINN 21% of TGQN (trans, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.
Sexual abuse takes various forms, including:
- sexual assault: forcing someone to participate in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity. Any sexual act (kissing, touching, fondling, intercourse) that happens without consent is considered to be sexual assault
- rape: coerced and forced sexual intercourse against a person’s will
- acquaintance rape: forced sexual intercourse by someone the survivor of the abuse is acquainted with, such as a person they are dating, a friend, family member, neighbour, a co-worker. Acquaintance rape can happen on a first date, at a party or when the partners have been going out for a long time. Acquaintance rape is the most common type of sexual assault. Over 80 % of rapes are acquaintance rapes and more than 50 % of them happen on dates
- partner or spousal rape: unwanted, forced sexual intercourse between two individuals who are in a relationship. Sexual violence often works alongside other abusive behaviour and is often linked to physical abuse; these two types of violence may occur together, or the sexual abuse may occur after physical abuse
- corrective rape: sexual assault and rape of a person based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity with the intent to turn the person heterosexual or to enforce conformity to gender norms. The rape of LGBTIQ+ persons is also called homophobic/lesbophobic/interphobic/transphobic rape and it actually a hate crime.
- sexual harassment: ridiculing another person to try to limit their sexuality, constant sexual comments online or offline aiming to humiliate/degrade a person, deliberating ‘outing a person’ in terms of their gender or sexual identity. Sexual harassment also includes unwanted and unwelcome sexual behaviour at work or place of education with actions such as sexual ‘jokes’ or innuendos; sexual comments; touching/caressing/physical contact; demands for sexual behaviour from someone who is in a position of authority or power (e.g. boss or teacher) and the creation of a hostile environment.
- sexual exploitation: forcing someone to look at pornography, forcing someone to participate in pornographic material, coercing someone to perform sexual acts over webcam and posting that material on an adult website non-consensual pornography: sharing private sexually explicit material of a person without their consent
The most important aspect to consider when we are talking about sexual abuse is consent. Consent is a free, uncoerced, conscious, informed, voluntary agreement to engage in any type of sexual activity. Consent should always be sober, enthusiastic, honest, verbal and mutual.
- Consent must always be a conscious choice. Consent comes from a sense of personal agency and self-determination, feeling free to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without pressure, coercion or intimidation and having your decision respected. If a partner cannot take ‘no’ as an answer, then there is no real consent.
- Consent is always active. Only a clear, verbal, voluntary, enthusiastic ‘yes’ (said in person) is a ‘yes’. Just because you didn’t say ‘no’ it doesn’t mean you said ‘yes’. Also pay attention to body language. If a person has said yes but their body language says ‘no’ (e.g. they are withdrawn, uninvolved, push back, turn the other way, seem as if they are in pain etc.) then you do not have consent.
- Consent is sexy. Against popular belief, it doesn’t kill the vibe. In fact, it sets the right tone for a healthy relationship or sexual encounter. It eases the stress and helps you relax because you don’t have to make assumptions that could end up being wrong. It also boosts confidence because it gives you the chance to express yourself and your desires and to know what you and your partner like.
- The only way to make sure you have consent is to ask for it, even if it feels a bit awkward at first. ‘Is this okay with you?’, ‘Do you want to do this?’, ‘Does this feel comfortable?’, ‘Shall we continue with this?’. It is important to respect your partner’s boundaries and always respect their answer.
- Consent is based on equal power. If someone is underaged, drunk, high, asleep or in another vulnerable position, they cannot consent.
- Consent is also a process. Consent requires lots of conversations in an environment of trust. Just because you consented to a certain type of sexual activity it doesn’t mean that you consent to all types of sexual activity. You may be comfortable making out for instance but may not want to ‘go all the way’. Or you may enjoy some sexual practices but not others. It also means that you can change your mind at any given time. If you consented to having sex in the past, it doesn’t mean that you always want to have sex every single time. Before you start any sexual activity (kissing, touching, intercourse etc.) you need to make sure that you and your partner are fully aware of what the sexual activity is and you both willingly agree to participate.
What can you do if you have experienced sexual abuse?
When you have experienced such an intimate violation, it can feel hard to want to talk to anyone about it. It feels more natural to withdraw and try to handle it on your own. Guilt, shame, intimidation and fear may also hold you back from reaching out to a support system. While it may feel taunting to do so, it is important to ask for help. Especially in incidences of rape, timing is everything, especially if you decide to take legal action in the future (even though, naturally that remains far from your consideration list).
Get medical attention: Consult a doctor to ensure that you are physically healthy. This can include attending to any injuries, checking for STIs , getting emergency contraception and/or PrEP, and collecting any DNA evidence of the abuser. While going through this may feel very difficult, you are the one who decides what happens to your body and you are entitled to stop or pause at any time during the medical exam.
Break your need for isolation and reach out to a friend, family member, or someone you trust. It is a very difficult process for you to go through alone. If you are feeling vulnerable or scared, identifying even one person who can support you through this can make a big difference in your recovery.
Connect with professional services who can help you explore your options: There are various crisis hotlines or sexual abuse helplines you can call or text for support. They can support you emotionally, help you identify healthy coping mechanisms, assist you in exploring your options and if it is necessary guide you into planning for safety. It is also important to connect to a professional therapist you can assist you to process what has happened and start taking care of yourself. Remember that you do not have to go through this by yourself.
Plan for safety: One of the most difficult things about experiencing sexual abuse if the fact that in most cases you know the abuser. In this respect, it is important to make sure that you have a safety plan in place. This may include telling someone what is going on, staying in constant communication with someone who can help if you’re in danger or staying with a trusted friend or family member for a little.
Some suggestions on how you can protect yourself if you have been on the receiving end of non-consensual pornography or sextortion are included in the next chapter, Chapter 13 ‘Sex in the Digital World’
● 12.2. Non-formal education activities on sexual violence
● 13.3. Links to additional resources and information
International Sexuality and HIV Curriculum Working Group (2009). It is all one curriculum: Guidelines and Activities for a Unified Approach to Sexuality, Gender, HIV, and Human Rights’. Population Council, New York. Available for free download at: https://www.ippf.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/ItsAllOneCurriculum_English.pdf
IPPF Teaching about consent and healthy boundaries – a guide for educators. https://www.ifpa.ie/sites/default/files/documents/Reports/teaching_about_consent_healthy_boundaries_a_guide_for_educators.pdf
Teach Consent Project: http://www.teachconsent.org/resources
MeToo Movement: How to support a survivor. https://metoomvmt.org/explore-healing/support-a-survivor
- European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA, 2016). Violence against women-an EU wide survey https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2014-vaw-survey-main-results-apr14_en.pdf
- Source: Crisis Text Line. https://www.crisistextline.org/