By Irene Anderson and Dan Reilly
Getting honest about sexual assault: It affects all of us
Here at the University of Arizona we are becoming more informed than ever before in knowing how sexual assault affects our lives and the lives of people that we care most about. As individuals, we have all been either directly or indirectly affected by the continuum of interpersonal violence in our own lives. As a campus community, we are responding by demonstrating an increased interest in educating ourselves and one another about the nature of power and control as well as the complex issues of sexual communication and consent.
Both of us are really encouraged by the attitudes and the activism of the students at this campus as well as the unprecedented administrative support for prevention and intervention programs that directly address the issues of sexual assault. ASUA C.A.R.E. (Campus Acquaintance Rape Educators) offers a 2-credit class each semester, with an increasing number of students registering for the coeducational section this semester, and with a high level of interest and participation by male students in the spring section offered specifically for men. Residence Life has also become pro-active through Program Team training opportunities offered to RA's and Hall Directors committed to sexual assault education and prevention efforts in the residence halls.
Since the establishment of the Oasis Center two years ago by UA administration, confidential reporting, counseling and consultation, advocacy support services and coordination of related campus efforts have increased services for victims and accountability of offenders. The UA is also taking a lead role with campus efforts around the country by shifting the perspective in how it is that we view the responsibility for sexual assault and relationship violence, far beyond the misinformed assumption that these concerns are limited to "women's issues." Sexual Assault Awareness Week activities have been sponsored during this past week by the students of C.A.R.E., and anyone stopping by their table this week has had a chance to hear about the belief that education of sexual attitudes and safety are keys to bridging the gaps of perceptions regarding the issues of sexual assault.
So what do our sexual attitudes and perceptions have to do with the realities of sexual assault and what does this have to do with us as members of the campus community? Let's start by reviewing what we know about the prevalence of sexual victimization, keeping in mind that the rates of interpersonal violence are consistent regardless of sexual orientation.
The most common myth still held by incoming first year female students on college campuses is that strangers pose the greatest threat to their safety, when in fact, 84 percent of women who have been sexually assaulted knew the offender. Most sexual assaults on a college campus occur within the first month of school and involve the use of alcohol or other drugs. The majority of men who have behaved in ways which would meet the legal definition of sexual assault have left the situation thinking that it was consensual. This appears to indicate that some offenders can fail to identify their sexual choices and behavior as traumatizing, and may believe that they have achieved consent through their own interpretation of the event. (Please note: If you are initiating sexual contact with another person, it is your responsibility to ensure that clear, verbal consent has been given. Impairment from alcohol or other drugs equals lack of consent.)
Those of us who were sexually abused as children or assaulted as adults (approximately 1 out of 4 females and 1 out of 7 males) may have developed, as a result of the trauma, specific beliefs about ourselves and the world that we live in. These beliefs may not be accurate, but serve a purpose in surviving the trauma.
If we have experienced sexual victimization and have not yet had the opportunity to resolve the trauma, we may believe "the world is a dangerous place, I can't trust anyone, people who say they love me are the ones who hurt me, I should have been able to prevent the abuse/assault from happening, if I don't think about it, it will go away, and/or I am crazy, permanently damaged and unworthy of love." These beliefs can obviously be destructive in a variety of ways and can also contribute to either overly-cautious or high-risk sexual behaviors. Conversely, those of us that have not been directly victimized may develop the belief that we are somehow immune from sexual assault, that assaults happen to "someone else," or that incidents do not really occur as frequently as studies indicate. This form of denial can actually serve as a powerful contributor to increased risk for victimization as a result of individuals not exercising enough caution in sexual situations ("It won't happen to me"), or can also contribute to the risk of initiating sexual behaviors that can be traumatic to someone else ("I'm not that kind of person").
We as women and as men are all at risk of being traumatized. We as women and as men are all at risk of causing trauma to others. We all have some important choices to make: to take responsibility for not causing harm to others, to confront and hold accountable those that do cause harm, and to start getting more honest about how these harmful behaviors affect us. Let us know how we can assist you.
Irene Anderson is the director of Oasis Center for Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence.
Dan Reilly is a health educator and C.A. R.E. adviser for Health Promotion and Preventive Services.