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What Exactly Is Sexual Assault, Anyway?

Campus sexual assault has been a hot topic in the news over the past year, between student protests, high profile cases and the formation of a White House special commission to address the issue. Across the country, colleges and universities are revamping their sexual assault policies, holding forums on sexual assault, and encouraging bystander intervention programs. But for all of the publicity surrounding this subject, it appears that many young adults’ attitudes about sexual assault have not evolved.

Recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) surveyed approximately 35% of their 11,000 students to learn more about their experiences with sexual assault. This survey of 3,844 students revealed that 166 responding female students and 45 responding male students had been sexually assaulted while at MIT. But the truly troubling part of these results is not the numbers — but what the survey revealed about the students’ attitudes about sexual assault. One of the biggest concerns is that these students don’t seem to understand what sexual assault actually is. Of the 166 female students who reported behavior consistent with sexual assault, only 110 believed that they had been sexually assaulted. That means that 56 female students had been kissed, groped, touched, or penetrated without their consent — but they did not think that qualified as sexual assault. Similarly, only 20 of the 45 male students who said they experienced this sort of behavior reported that they had been sexually assaulted. These numbers show a fair amount of confusion about what exactly sexual violence is — even among victims. Perhaps more troubling was what the survey revealed about victim-blaming. A large percentage of students —15% of female undergraduate students and 25% of male undergrads — said that a drunk person is “at least somewhat responsible” for their own sexual assault. Even more undergraduates (31% of women and 35% of men) believe that sexual assault and rape “happen because men can get carried away in sexual situations once they’ve started.” 44% of sexual assault victims believe that they were at least partially at fault for their assault.


These survey results are disturbing — and they are made even more worrisome when we learn what some colleges and universities are telling their students about sexual assault. An administrator at Ramapo College in New Jersey told female students that to avoid unwanted sexual attention, they should be aware of their body language, dress, alcohol consumption — and even their facial expressions. This administrator told students that they should practice “how they articulate their face” in a mirror — a comment which spawned a wave of anti-victim blaming tweets with the hashtag #AntiRapeFace. This victim-blaming mentality has been espoused by another college administrator this fall, with the president of Lincoln College telling female students to “not put themselves in a situation” to be raped. If these are the messages that students are getting from their schools, is it any wonder that there is such confusion when it comes to what exactly sexual assault is and who is to blame for it?

All of this shows a clear need for a change in our culture, and for our attitudes about sexual assaults to catch up with reality. We believe that one of the best ways to achieve this is through education (LINK to SA page). Some important points:

  • Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Ever.

  • The only person responsible for rape is the rapist.

  • If you are touched sexually without your consent, that is sexual assault. Period.

  • Consent is an active, verbal, sober YES — not the absence of a NO.

  • The vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by a person known to the victim.

If you want to get involved in our fight against sexual assault, there are many ways to do so. You can help to change attitudes at your school or organization by scheduling a free education or training program. You can volunteer for Blackburn Center, and spread the word yourself through our speaker’s bureau, or by handing out literature at health fairs. You can donate to our organization, helping us to not only respond to the needs of victims of sexual assault, but to get at the root causes of this sort of violence. By combining education and advocacy, we can change these attitudes — and end this sort of violence!

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