Sexual Consent & Assault
Video courtesy of © 2015 Emmeline May and Blue Seat Studios
TRIGGER WARNING: The following post may be distressing to some who have experienced sexual assault in life.
Sexual consent refers to an agreement by choice and without any form of coercion to participate in any form of sexual contact. He/she/they must be conscious and have the mental capacity to make the decision (i.e., they must not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol or suffering from any mental health issues or intellectual disabilities). This consent may be withdrawn at any point in time, and consent must be given before each sexual activity. If a person gave his/her/their consent before, it does not mean that he/she/they are obliged to do so in future.
Sexual assault occurs when explicit concern has not been given. This includes non-penetrative sex, such as molestation and oral sex. Anyone may be a victim of sexual assault even if they are involved in a relationship with the perpetrator.
Who is the perpetrator?
Anyone can be a perpetrator, just like how anyone can be a victim. The key message is that it is hard to identify "potential" perpetrators, so do not judge a book by its cover.
However, identifying some of the common characteristics of these perpetrators may help to raise awareness of sexual assault as well as provide education and preventive measures. Some of the common characteristics include:
Beliefs in rape myths (see below for common myths of assault) - myths are false, stereotyped beliefs that are harmful and perpetuate prejudices against victims. Perpetrators who are sold by these falsehoods may justify their behaviours when they engage in sexual assault.
Beliefs in traditional gender roles - traditional gender roles encourage masculinity and dominance amongst males; they also perpetuate the image of submission and weakness of women. These roles are sometimes perpetuated in mass media. Those who believe in either stereotyped roles may be more accepting of sexual coercion.
Sexual rights - those who believe that being in a long-term, monogamous relationship includes rights and entitlements to have sexual intercourse without appropriate consent. Some partners may believe that they do not have the right to refuse a sexual act because they are in a committed relationship.
Education programmes that promote healthy dating behaviours should be introduced as early as the age of 11. These programmes should also challenge and correct dating and rape myths as well as stereotypes of traditional gendered roles. Parents and teachers ought to have open conversations with their children and students respectively. It is important to tackle the root of the problem - these deep-seated beliefs that perpetuate our society.
High schools and tertiary institutions (i.e., colleges/universities) should also have rape prevention programmes that not only highlight the prevalence and dangers of sexual assault on campus, but also provide strategies to prevent such assault incidents from occurring, which include escort services to ensure nobody leaves a party alone with a stranger.
There is so much more that needs to be done - from governing bodies to individuals. It does not help that mass media perpetuates stereotypical gender roles or trivialises sexual assault. If you have any suggestions on how to raise awareness or prevent sexual assault, write in to us and share your thoughts!
Management of sexual assault
If you have ever been a victim of sexual assault, we hope that you have been supported at each and every stage in your life. Please reach out to someone (your close friends or family, your local helpline, an advisor you can trust, or even us) if you need someone to talk to.
Management includes psychosocial support as well as pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention. It is important for healthcare professionals to provide empathy, non-judgemental support, and validation to victims of sexual assault. For such traumatic experiences, therapy may provide a safe space for these victims to express their emotions and restore themselves.
Medical treatments for STD and pregnancy prevention include a series of tests to ensure that the victims are not pregnant/ do not have an STD as well as medications to prevent them from occurring. The doctor may obtain some vaginal swabs and urine samples for testing. He/she/they may also prescribe antibiotics and antiviral treatments to prevent an STD from occurring. Victims may also be started on an emergency contraception (sometimes known as a "morning after pill") to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
Here are some common myths of sexual assault:
#1 Only women can be sexually assaulted
Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault. Women can also be perpetrators. Men can be sexually assaulted by both men and women.
#2 If the person does not want to have sex, then why is he/she/they dressed provocatively?
The choice of clothing should not dictate whether or not the person is interested in sex. This type of belief is deeply problematic.
#3 If the person does not want to have sex, then why did he/she/they go back home with the perpetrator?
Consent may also be withdrawn even if the person has given consent prior to the sexual activity.
#4 He/She/They may not react or behave like someone who has just been raped.
We all react to trauma in different ways. Just because someone does not behave in a supposed way does not mean that he/she/they are lying.
#5 Sex workers cannot be sexually assaulted. Partners cannot be sexually assaulted.
I repeat: Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault. In fact, in some countries, the incidence of sexual assault amongst sex workers is higher than the normal population. Everyone has the right to say no to any form of sexual contact at any point in time. This applies to partners in long-term relationships and married spouses.