Sexual Harassment and Assault: Use Your Voice to Stop It
Originally Published: May 3, 2018
Revised: January 3, 2019
Dan, 19, of Cleveland, OH, admits he probably should have asked permission before kissing a girl in the hallway during his sophomore year of high school. Though they weren’t romantically involved at the time, Dan, now a college student, says it was meant as a genuine sign of affection— not a sexual advance and certainly not an attempt to make anyone feel uncomfortable.
“I’m just touchy-feely, I guess,” says Dan. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. Still, she got really upset by it. I felt pretty bad about it. Disgusted with myself, actually.”
What happened between Dan and his friend is far from an isolated occurrence. Fifty-six percent of middle and high school girls and 40 percent of middle and high school boys experience sexual harassment each year, according to a 2011 study by the American Association of University Women. Sexual harassment can include unwanted sexual advances, unwanted sexual photos and suggestive or offensive sexual comments. Sexual assault, on the other hand, is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without a person’s consent; this includes rape, attempted rape and sexual molestation (sexual touching without a person’s consent). One of the most common misconceptions about sexual harassment and assault is that it’s always intentional or malicious. While this is often true, other times it’s ignorance or recklessness that cause these actions. Regardless of a person’s intentions, sexual harassment and assault are never OK.
But what can we do about sexual harassment and assault? We can speak up and communicate. Whether it’s clarifying what consent is, making sure consent has been given if you’re not sure or refusing to stand by while you see something questionable, there are lots of ways that we can use our voices to help end sexual harassment and assault.
One Yes Is Not a Yes to Everything
Sometimes it’s not crystal clear what each partner wants out of a sexual experience. Charlotte, 17, of Manalapan, NJ, says she isn’t sure if her experience qualifies as sexual assault. “She never meant to hurt me, I know that,” she says about a girl she dated. “I said yes to go out on a few dates.” Then things started to get physical. “I guess she thought that one ‘yes’ was a ‘yes’ to everything else, but it wasn’t.”
Active and clear communication is the only way to ensure a healthy, consensual sexual experience.
There is a common misconception about sex that one “yes” is universal and all encompassing. In reality, a healthy relationship of any sort—friendly, romantic, sexual—should involve mutual consent. Sex requires consent, but so does kissing, hugging and public displays of affection. “Though we don’t always ask beforehand every little step of the way, we should at the very least pay close attention, and communicate if we’re unsure,” Charlotte says.
There can be gray areas where consent is concerned when partners consent to “sex” but have different ideas about what sex means. Other times, people may misinterpret nonverbal cues or mistake a lack of a “no” for a “yes.” These mistakes can be traumatic and hurtful. According to Charlotte, consent is not just about saying “no,” but about actively seeking out or providing a “yes.” Both partners should be actively communicating, expressing their boundaries, listening to each other and checking for consent every step of the way. Active and clear communication is the only way to ensure a healthy, consensual sexual experience.
Strength and Solidarity
What happens when someone touches you inappropriately or makes you feel sexually uncomfortable? Jaelle, 18, of Chicago, says it’s important to speak up. She recalls when she was subjected to unwanted touching by a man while riding the bus. “He randomly came up to me (and) started talking to me,” she says. While she suggested she wasn’t interested in his flirting, he pushed on, placing his hand on her inner thigh. Jaelle says it was deeply unsettling, and she went home and told her family.
Jaelle, like many young people, has found strength and solidarity with the rise of the #MeToo movement. With so much of sexual assault and rape culture rooted in sexism, Jaelle says a key to stopping sexual assault is speaking out against the objectification of women and girls—who are disproportionately affected by the issue—and promoting healthy discussions about sexuality. Ignorance does not excuse sexual assault or harassment.
“Men need to realize how traumatic it can be for women,” Jaelle said. “They can’t process it or relate to what it feels like to be a girl and always have to warn your friends and worry about your surroundings. They approach us on the street, out in public.”
In speaking out, Jaelle says, not only do we educate young men on the ramifications of their actions and hold them accountable, we also empower young women. When young women share their stories about sexual assault and harassment, they fight the culture of silence that lets such actions continue. Says Jaelle, “It feels like I’m less alone.”
Be an Upstander
Speaking of feeling less alone, it’s also important for people to speak up when they see something questionable. An effective way to stop sexual assault is by being an “active” bystander, sometimes called an upstander, according to a 2011 issue of Violence Against Women, an international publication. This is true for both young men and women but may be particularly important for men. Studies have been done with college males that found that when they participated in sexual assault prevention programs, they were less likely to associate with “sexually aggressive peers” and had a heightened awareness of how their own behavior might be perceived. It appears that when guys hold other guys accountable, it can make a serious dent in the culture of sexual violence.
Since Dan crossed a line by kissing his friend, he has wanted to help address sexual harassment and assault. When I shared the impact guys can have by being upstanders, Dan was surprised and said he would be eager to be an upstander against sexual assault in the future. “I’d probably try to approach other guys as a friend, rather than an enemy or some kind of teacher,” he says.
While Dan’s experience has made him a strong advocate for supporting women, he also knows what it’s like to have your boundaries violated. Dan recalls having a girlfriend who would get really angry and resort to physical force when he tried to remove himself from a sexual situation. “She started punching me,” says Dan. “People think she’s a girl and I should be stronger than her so it shouldn’t happen. That’s just not true.” Sexual assault takes many forms and has many faces. Though girls and those who identify as LGBTQ are more often the victims of sexual assault, guys are not exempt from being victims and girls are not exempt from being offenders.
For any person—girl, guy or otherwise—struggling with sexual assault or harassment, know you aren’t alone. In addition to friends, peers and family, there’s also a myriad of tools out there, like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s (RAINN’s) 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), and Circle of 6, an app which connects you to your own support network of six people in times of crisis.
We can make a difference. Whether it’s getting clarification if we aren’t sure consent has been given, sharing our stories or speaking up if we see someone at risk or in danger, we have the power. We have a voice
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