(This post contains research and discussion centered on nonconsensual sex. Please read with caution and care for yourself.)
Today new research studying the impacts of forced sexual initiation was published. Read it for yourself, or at least the summary, here. Here are a few key points that stuck out to me.
- “6.5% of respondents reported experiencing forced sexual initiation, equivalent to 3,351,733 women in this age group nationwide…” “Initiation” means a sexual debut or the first time someone has had sex. This study was focused on female survivors between 18 and 44 years old, even still it is important to remember data surrounding sexual violence may not be accurate. Experts estimate 3 out of 4 victims do not report.
- “Age at forced sexual initiation averaged 15.6 years…The mean age of the partner/assailant at first sexual encounter was 6 years older for women with forced vs voluntary sexual initiation.” Please note the age difference between the rape victim and the assailant. It is alarming. This suggests a significant power dynamic, in social and legal status and perhaps also size and strength. RAINN reports that most perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.
- When compared to those with voluntary sexual initiation, survivors of rape experience long term health consequences at a higher rate, such as unwanted first pregnancies, abortions, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and challenges with ovulation or menstruation.
- In a brief conclusion the authors write, “These findings highlight the possible need for public health measures and sociocultural changes to prevent sexual violence, particularly forced sexual initiation.“
I find this information both upsetting and deeply saddening. The data centers on only first-time sexual encounters that were forced — sexual debuts initiated by rape. Allow that to sink in. This study was completed just before the #MeToo movement was given a broader attention in October of 2017. This means the public conversation defining consent and sexual abuse had not quite picked up momentum and many victims had not reported or perhaps understood their experiences as rape. There are most likely many, many more victims than the 3.4 million already estimate in this study.
Also just before the most recent #MeToo movement, “Emily Doe,” or Chanel Miller, was fighting for recognition and justice after being assaulted and raped by Brock Turner. While in court, Turner received sympathy and a lenient sentence while Miller was left the damaging, long-term consequences of Turner’s violent actions against her.
Her story is important because it puts a name to the numbers and changed California’s law regarding minimum sentencing for sexual assault.
It also highlights the societal assumptions about sexual violence and perpetrators. Do we even recognize rape (or nonconsensual sex) when we see it? If they don’t remember the assault, is it still punishable? Do the consequences or impacts of jail time outweigh the impacts of rape? What if the perpetrator is a really great swimmer? How would the sentence differ if the perpetrator were not white? Who gets to define consent?
“Someday, you can pay me back for my ambulance ride and therapy. But you cannot give me back my sleepless nights. The way I have broken down sobbing uncontrollably if I’m watching a movie and a woman is harmed, to say it lightly, this experience has expanded my empathy for other victims. I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately. There are times I did not want to be touched. I have to relearn that I am not fragile, I am capable, I am wholesome, not just livid and weak.”
“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”Chanel Miller, Victim Witness Statement
Read her full victim witness statement here. It is moving, informative, and very well written. Miller details what she remembers as well as the medical and legal process that followed. It is well worth your time. Her book comes out later this month.
So how do we address the proposed “public health measures” and “sociocultural changes”?
- Rape and other forms of sexual violence should be considered a public health issue, if not already.
- The empowerment of women, nationally and worldwide, promotes their personal safety and their families’ wellbeing, but also human flourishing throughout society. (Read more in this article, and also in this book.)
- Sex education needs to be comprehensive, scientifically/medically accurate, and age appropriate. (It’s not always that way. Click here to see what policies your state has for sex education!)
- Parents, faith leaders, educators, policy-makers, enforcers, and all others, need to advocate against sexism, especially benevolent sexism, and also work to prevent the infiltration of rape myths in their thoughts, reactions, theologies, and voting patterns. Benevolent sexism, traditional gender roles, and rape myths are elements that normalize sexual violence, otherwise known as rape culture.
These are only a few broad strokes. The solution to this requires multicultural, interfaith and bi-partisan collaboration and community engagement. There are no easy answers or formulas but there is hope. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can make our homes, churches, and communities safe from violence.
- “‘Tip Of The Iceberg’ — 1 In 16 Women Reports First Sexual Experience As Rape” by Rhitu Chatterjee (NPR’s coverage of this new study.)
- Consequences of Child/Adolescent and Adult Sexual Assault
- Stop SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence published by the CDC
- Understanding and Addressing Violence Against Women: Sexual Violence published by World Health Organization