Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Lindsay Fleming LPC
What Is Sexual Assault? Taking A Look At All The Ways It Shows Up
Published Mar 26th, 2021 & updated on Apr 9th, 2021
Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is a heavy af subject to cover. Heck, it’s a heavy af experience to go through! It can leave us with a ton of different emotions and sometimes these emotions even feel like they conflict with one another. It’s confusing, it’s painful, and it can be a difficult thing to come to terms with.
Sexual assault can also be a hard thing to define or recognize if you aren’t totally sure what it is. Has anyone ever sat you down with a dictionary and pointed it out? Probably not. But that’s why we’re here (minus the dictionary)! We’re breaking down what sexual assault is, what consent is and what it means, and how to help yourself if you’ve been assaulted.
Sexual Assault Definition
Let’s define sexual assault. It’s actually a lot less complicated than you might think. Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual act enacted on one person by another. So many of us have a tendency to downplay sexual assaults that seem “lesser” to us or “not as bad” because we weren’t forced to have sex against our will. But it’s important to remember that without consent any kissing, touching, groping, humping, or sexual act is sexual assault.
What Is Considered Sexual Assault?
Sometimes, we don’t even realize that we’ve BEEN sexually assaulted. So often, people have experiences that just don’t *feeeeeel* right and then they look back to realize that it was actually sexual assault that they experienced. Here are some examples of things you may have experienced, heard, or even said that you might not have realized were sexual assault:
“I wasn’t really into it, but we hooked up at the party.”
“They just kept pushing themselves on me, so I gave up and gave in.”
“I didn’t want to send them my nudes but they were just so insistent…”
“I didn’t want to do it, but they made it seem like I didn’t have a choice.”
“We had just started dating and they said they’d break up with me if I didn’t have sex with them.”
“We’re dating so that doesn’t count. They were just being rough.”
Let’s expand on some of these situations for a minute. We mentioned texting, and while you might think that texting isn’t a way that someone can be sexually assaulted, it totally can be. You can be sent an explicit picture that you didn’t want to receive, you can be coerced and groomed online (or over text) to send pictures or sexual messages to another person, or you can be pressured into sending sexual messages that you’re not totally comfortable with. This can happen to people of any age, but it is particularly important for people under 18-years-old to talk to an adult about it — because the person who possesses the sexual texts and images is then in possession of child pornography.
Where Sexual Assault Can Happen
Ok, not to get too scary here, but sexual assault can happen literally anywhere. We often think that it’s saved for parties and nightclubs, or strangers in an alley, but that’s unfortunately not true. It can happen between partners, family members, friends, strangers, or really anyone.
Here are some places where sexual assault can happen:
– A party
– Public transit
– The sidewalk
– With a trusted partner
– With an authority figure
– Over text
Oof, that’s a loooong list. It can feel really daunting looking at that and it can feel scary as heck trying to keep yourself safe. But the important thing to remember is that you have the ability to give and revoke consent at ANY time and in ANY situation. Consent is key! And it’s not just “key” — it’s needed, demanded and completely necessary.
Consent is a majorrrrr factor in any sexual act. To put it plainly, consent is an enthusiastic and fully informed “yes!” If you said yes but felt pressured, that’s not consent. Felt tricked? Then it wasn’t consent. If you said no, you didn’t give consent. If you stayed silent, you didn’t give consent. Without that continuous “YES,” it’s not a healthy and consensual act. And consent can’t be given by someone who is underage, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unconscious, or asleep.
Power dynamics also influence consent. For example, if you’re forced or pressured into a sexual act with your boss at work, or a teacher at school, and you don’t feel like you have the ability to say “no,” then that person is using their power for sexual gain. If you take back your consent and the person does not acknowledge it, or refuses to, then the sexual act becomes assault.
But there IS good news about consent! It can be given AND taken away at anyyyyyyyy point in time. You could be in the middle of having sex and then realize that you’re not into it anymore, you feel unsafe, or you just don’t want to keep doing it. You’re allowed to change your mind and say “no” or “stop” or “wait” or “I’m not sure anymore” or any other string of words that lets the person know you no longer consent. Don’t let anyyyyooonneee tell you differently! You should be in control of what happens to you and your body at all times.
Oprah said it best — “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
How You Might React To A Sexual Assault
Before we get into how you might feel or react after an assault, just know that however you feel is valid. Everyone’s reaction to assault is different and there is no expectation for you to feel any way that you aren’t comfortable with right now.
Now, with that being said, here are some common reactions to sexual assault:
– Feeling isolated
– Disruption of daily life
– Feeling a loss of control
– Emotions are triggered easily, or not at all
– Lack of concentration
– Feeling dirty or unclean
– Lack of interest in sex, affection and/or touch
– PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
– Wondering “why did this happen to me?”
All of these reactions have so many layers to them and, like we said, they’re all completely valid. Sexual assault invades a person’s space, their safety and their body. Our minds can only cope with so much trauma and it’s hard to grapple with it all! You might feel like it makes total sense one day and then zero sense the next. And that’s totally normal and totally valid.
The process of acknowledging the assault, and healing from the trauma, is a confusing and frustrating journey. Know that you are not alone. There are resources available to help you in whatever way you need.
What To Do If You’re Sexually Assaulted
If you’ve been assaulted, remember that it’s not your fault. Sexual assault is 100% of the time the fault of the attacker. Not you. You didn’t ask for it because of what you were wearing, it’s not ok or acceptable because you’re in a relationship with your assaulter, and you never “owe” anyone sex — ever. Full Stop. E. V. E. R.
It’s hard to know what to do next when you’ve been sexually assaulted. You might face roadblocks or challenges that you didn’t expect to encounter while trying to heal and help yourself. So here are some steps that you can take to get help:
Make Sure That You’re In A Safe Place
If you need to, call your friends or family members and ask for help. Make sure that this person is someone you trust. If you don’t have anyone to rely on, search online for a local shelter that harbours people fleeing violent situations.
Call A Helpline
In the United States, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) is available 24/7 for phone calls or online chat. In Canada, you can find your nearest crisis centre by dialing 411, or through CASAC (Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres). The trained professionals can direct you and tell you what steps you should take next because it can be really hard to know what to do on your own after something so major has happened. But, they’re there to support you.
Seek Out Medical Attention
Medical professionals can care for the injuries that you can and can’t see. They can also log any information related to your assault so that you can have a professional record of what happened to you.
Report To Law Enforcement
This can feel like the scariest step of all for many people because they have to face an authority figure and potentially not be believed. If you ultimately choose not to report the assault to law enforcement, that’s ok! You do what you are capable of doing and if that means going to the police, great! If not, that’s also totally fine because it means you’re looking after yourself and listening to your needs. Don’t push yourself to do things you aren’t ready for.
Therapy can help you work through trauma and pain. It can also help you process and cope with your emotions and help you understand where you want to go next on your healing journey. If you contacted a crisis centre or hotline, then they will be able to recommend some therapy resources. If not, you can search online for terms like “sexual assault counsellor,” “sexual assault therapist,” or “sexual assault psychologist.” If you’re trying to determine what kind of therapist you want, we can help with that. Here is information on how to choose a therapist.
This is a REALLY INTENSE thing to have happen to you. This stuff is hard and we hope this information helps! Just know, at the end of the day we support you, your feelings are valid, and YOU are valid.
*If you need immediate help, dial 911 or your local emergency number.
*To report a crime against a child, or other vulnerable persons, contact your local police.