When my high school counselor recommended that I write about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, at first I couldn’t see why. Sexual assault? In high school? She nodded her head emphatically and responded, “It happens all the time.” After some prompting, I realized that everything from comments to the whistles that filters through the halls is sexual assault – I’ve just been conditioned not to notice.
I set off to the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center (SBRCC) to learn the facts about sexual assault and in particular, how it affects high school aged youth. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and SBRCC is at the forefront of numerous events, outreach programs, and trainings to educate the public on the realities of sexual assault. According to Community Education Coordinator Alena Donovan, sexual assault is an umbrella term that includes any unwanted sexual contact, including physical, verbal, or visual harassment. This may include catcalls, being grabbed, stalking, child sexual abuse, or rape. She emphasized that it is necessary to treat “subtle” forms just as seriously as severe actions because all sexual assault is violating and traumatic.
With this definition, sexual assault occurs all the time. The California Coalition Against Sexual Assault reports that “the most commonly reported forms of sexual harassment are receiving unwanted sexual comments, gestures or looks and being touched, pinched or grabbed.” Most people can attest to having one or more of these actions happen to them personally. The organization also cites that “One in four girls and one in six guys experience sexual assault before age 18.” This may occur from both peers and adults, and as is seen in several local cases, even from adults in positions of authority.
However, Donovan stressed that sexual assault does not happen more often to youth because of the “teenage lifestyle.” “So often people say, ‘Oh, those crazy youth,'” but accusing teenagers of frequent sexual assault is unfair. Sexual assault happens across all age groups, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic classes. While youth culture is often framed for promoting poor behavior and for carrying the mixture of violence and sex, it is not any different than what adults are exposed to. The high school based movie Superbad and the classic film Gone With the Wind both include the idea of men being violent perpetrators of women. Not to mention the fact that most advertising in magazines and on television portrays typical gender roles with submissive women and dominant men. Traditional gender roles and unequal distributions of power contribute to society’s norms which are expressed by youth and adults alike.
Donovan debunked many myths, including the initial situation that popped into my mind when I thought of sexual assault: an attractive young woman walking alone at night suddenly being overwhelmed by a man jumping out of a dark alley. Donovan assured that in reality, there is a small probability of this occurring. It is much more common for sexual assault to occur at home, and is equally likely to happen in the day as at night, with 80 percent of rapes occurring by someone the survivor knows. For example, a few friends might be comfortably at home drinking, and one may be accosted by another.
Furthermore, people will often blame the woman for walking alone, or for “asking for it” because of her clothing or flirtatious behavior. “One of the most powerful things we can do is challenge victim-blaming,” Donovan said. She explained that sexual assault occurs not necessarily because a victim is attractive, but because the perpetrator feels that s/he can take advantage of them – which may be because of alcohol, drugs, or disabilities – and that the survivor will not tell. The “very realistic situation” in the 2004 film Speak was alluded to, in which the protagonist is raped by a popular, good-looking boy she admired and trusted. The girl blamed herself for the event because she had consented to sexual activity prior to the rape, while in reality the perpetrator should have accepted her refusal and stopped. As a result of gender conditioning and societal stigma, only approximately 16 percent of sexual assaults are reported.
There are packets of information lining the walls of the SBRCC with more facts and information on how to reduce the risk of sexual assault. The bilingual staff provides self-defense courses and resources for survivors, including a 24-hour hotline, confidential services, and counseling and support groups. “We all have a role to play if we want to make change,” Donovan explained. SBRCC is always open to volunteers and interns, and encourages families to discuss sexual assault. In particular, parents can encourage assertive communication for both boys and girls and explain the importance of using respectful language.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is drawing to a close, but it’s only the beginning of SBRCC’s year-long work. This year’s theme is “Plant the seeds of change” – talk to your family about sexual assault.
There will be a family festival at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (227 N. Nopal St) on Sunday, April 27th from 2:00 to 4:30 pm. with arts and crafts for the kids, and a workshop and plays for teenagers and adults. For more information on the event or on any of SBRCC’s services, call (805) 963-6832.