As we are seeing in the last few days, more and more men in powerful positions find themselves suddenly out of a job because of the brave women who’ve come forward to share their traumatic experiences in public, it’s very easy to forget how serious the problem sexual assault is today. Many men (and even some women) simply brush off such accusations or behaviors with trite but insulting excuses, such as, “Boys will be boys.”
What Is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is a serious and devastating violent criminal behavior. It leaves a permanent traumatic scar on the victim which no amount of time can heal or lets the victim forget the event. It is time our culture and society stop making excuses for these dishonorable (mostly male) criminals.
Sexual assault (and its twin, sexual abuse) is not about the act of sex to the abuser.
Rather it is about the power differential between the abuser and the victim. Most of these crimes are committed by men toward women, and most people know their abuser. Sexual assault usually refers to the behavior when it is of short-duration or infrequent, but for the victim of such crimes, such distinctions don’t matter much.
Sexual assault in India as we see the cases popping out is sadly common.
One in five women has reported being raped at one point in their lives (and one in 71 men). On college campuses, that number rises to one in four women (and one in seven men). Over 92 percent of the time, it is either by their intimate partner, or by an acquaintance. About 91 percent of victims of rape and sexual assault and rape are women, while nine percent are men.
Sexual violence is even more common.
Sexual abuse can take many forms, but it always includes a component of unwanted sexual activity forced on the victim. That activity can, and most often does, involve direct contact with the victim, but may also be forcing the victim to watch the perpetrator engage in a sexual activity on their own, or inappropriately show their genitals. Perpetrators of sexual abuse think nothing of making threats to get what they want, using force, or taking advantage of a victim’s role (such as an employee).
Perpetrators of sexual abuse take pleasure in inflicting their will onto the victim, as well as the victim’s powerlessness. Some sexual abusers use alcohol or drugs to ensure a compliant, intoxicated victim. Using drugs and alcohol seems to reduce the likelihood of the victim reporting the crime to the police, as the victim will often blame herself or himself for taking the drugs or alcohol (although the administration of drugs is often non-consensual).
Many powerful, prominent men who engage in sexual assault believe they are owed the right to both verbally harass and sexually abuse whomever they want, whenever they want. They believe their position of power — whether it comes through wealth, family background, work role, politics, or corporate leadership — negates ordinary cultural and societal norms. “I’m owed this, and you can’t do anything about it — who would believe you over me?” is a common refrain for these men.
Why Some men sexually abuse women?
There are many excuses and motives to why the perpetrators commit such crimes. According to the case study done by Jaydip Sarkar of Institute of Mental Health of Singapore, the perpetrators rationalize their actions by stating that the other party was triggering the perpetrator to display molesting behavior. Sarkar states that upon evaluation of the rape offenders, they used the five theories to rationalize their past behaviors, which Sarkar refers to them as cognitive distortion:
1. Women are unknowable: Rapists believe that women are fundamentally different from me and, therefore, cannot be understood. Encounters with women will, therefore, be adversarial and women will be deceptive about what they really want. An example of such a Cognitive Distortion might be ”…she is dressed in hot pants and her cleavage is visible. This means she wants sex and it is okay for me to have sex with her” when she says “no” she actually wants to turn me on further.” (Sarkar 2013)
2. Women are sex objects: The Cognitive Distortion is that women are constantly receptive to men's sexual needs but are not necessarily always conscious of this. Their body language is more important than what they say and women cannot be hurt by sexual activity unless they are physically harmed, that is being beaten or punched. An example of this might be ”…when she looks furtively at me when I make lewd comments, she is actually interested in me. So when she says “no” she is actually playing with me to turn me on further. (Sarkar 2013)
3. Male sex drive is uncontrollable: Men's sexual energies can build up to dangerous levels if women do not provide them with sexual opportunities and once they are aroused it is difficult not to progress to orgasm. In India, with its culture-bound syndromes of “male sexual weakness” or dhat syndrome, one manifestation of such a Cognitive Distortion might be “… I am going to become weak if my “dhat” (semen) flows out (premature ejaculation while molesting or sexually harassing a woman) and a woman does not offer herself to me.” (Sarkar 2013)
4. Entitlement: Men's needs, which include sexual needs, should be met on demand by women. In a nation like India with major gender-based inequalities, such Cognitive Distortions of male entitlement, especially if the victim is from lower status for whatever reason (socioeconomics, caste, etc.) can lead to marital rape (recommended to be considered a crime in the Verma Commission report). (Sarkar 2013)
5. Dangerous world: The world is a hostile and threatening place and people need to be on their guard, but there is no safe haven. An example is “…. I have been wronged in many ways, and so it is not wrong for me to do wrong to others." (Sarkar 2013)
Trauma inflicted Can Be Lifelong, Relentless
Criminal sexual assault behavior by a perpetrator onto their victim usually results in the victim dealing with the aftermath of the trauma throughout their life. 81 percent of women (and 35 percent of men) will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, , major disorder, or some other disorder due to the assault.
“Survivors of sexual assault appear to be at substantially increased risk for suicidal ideation and attempts; indeed, relative to other conditions, sexual assault was associated with the highest increases in risk for suicidality” (Dworkin et al., 2017). These same researchers, in a comprehensive analysis of the sexual assault research literature, also found that victims are at increased risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and disorder.
Perpetrators rarely think of, much less care, about the impact of their behavior on their victim. When they do think about it, it is almost always in the context of believing the victim only has themselves to blame for putting themselves into a situation with the perpetrator.
Psychotherapy can often help a victim of sexual assault.
The healing process is usually lengthy, as many victims blame themselves (as society too often does as well) for somehow helping to bring on the sexual assault. Nobody would ever want such a thing to happen to their best friend, much less themselves, but this kind of cognitive distortion is common among victims. Time also helps to heal the pain caused by sexual assault, but in most people, time is usually not enough on its own.
Why don’t most sexual assault victims report the crime to the police?
Because victims often feel like they are victimized a second time by having to go through the details of the incident (often more than once) with law enforcement officers. Most of these folks are well-meaning, but not all of them are properly trained on how to handle sexual assault reports, and how to do so in a compassionate and empathetic manner.
Nearly every such law enforcement contact will include questions that suggest the victim might be partially to blame, such as, “What were you wearing at the time of the assault?” and “Did you have anything to drink?”
What is the Society’s Role in Perpetrating Sexual Assault?
Society needs to stop re-victimizing the victims of sexual assault (“What were you wearing?” “Did you drink too much?” “Did you resist?” “Are you sure he knew you didn’t want to?”) and focus its efforts on teaching perpetrators of this crime that people’s boundaries and rights must be respected at all times.
Lack of consent during sexual activity is not consent.
Just because a person is in a position of power over another person doesn’t give them the right to act out their violent behaviors. Society and family members need to stop making excuses for perpetrators behaving badly (“Oh, that’s just locker-room talk” or “They were only 18, what do they know?”), and start enforcing the idea that honor and respect carry far more weight and value. Women are not there to be subjugated or victimized.
Get Help & Helping Others
If you’re a perpetrator of sexual assault, you need to get help immediately. This dysfunctional behavior has likely caused significant harm to one or more people in your life — harm that will likely never go away completely for them. There are many psychologists and other therapists who specialize in helping perpetrators of sexual assault. Reaching out to one today is a proactive sign of strength.
If someone shares with you that they’ve been a victim of a sexual assault, please listen to them without judgment. Be an and offer them unreserved emotional support. Help them figure out what kind of assistance they want and need, and then, if they need it, offer to help them with accessing those resources. Do not ask questions about the assault unless they indicate that they’d like to talk about it. Encourage them to get help — but don’t nag them or suggest there’s only one “right” way to react to the assault.
Remember that, if you’re a victim, . And if you’re a victim of sexual assault, please know that . Professionals and your friends will believe you, even if your own family or certain people in your life don’t.
Please, reach out and get help today.
1. Dworkin, ER, Menon, SV, Bystrynski, J, Allen, NE. (2017). Sexual assault victimization and psychopathology: A review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 56, 65-81.
2. Davis, KC, Neilson, EC, Wegner, R, Danube, CL. (2018). The intersection of men’s sexual violence perpetration and sexual risk behavior: A literature review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 40, 83-90.
4. Malamuth, N. M., & Brown, L. M. (1994). Sexually aggressive men's perceptions of women's communications: Testing three explanations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(4), 699-712. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.119
5. Sarkar, J. (2013). Mental health assessment of rape offenders. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(3), 235–243. http://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.117137