Sexual assault trauma demands more awareness

Dec. 1, 2004


Every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in America. By the time you finish reading this, someone else will have experienced this horrible crime. Sexual assault is defined by the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) as "a wide range of victimizations, distinct from rape or attempted rape." This definition includes completed or attempted attacks involving unwanted sexual contact between the victim and offender.

Sexual assault does not always involve force, and includes grabbing or fondling. Verbal threats are also included in the definition of sexual assault. We hear a lot of warnings and stories about rape, but what about "not-quite-rape"?

The problem with the term "sexual assault" is it's very broad and, to the general public, means very little. When someone says "rape," you immediately know exactly what he or she is talking about and to some extent, the sort of event they probably experienced. It's traumatic, it's horrible, and it evokes sympathy without the victim having to explain in detail what happened. The same is not true about the term sexual assault.

Five years ago I was sexually assaulted. I wasn't raped, but that doesn't make my experience any less traumatic or painful. I have been made to feel ashamed for what happened to me, and I couldn't easily explain what happened simply because I didn't know the vocabulary. Saying to someone "I was sexually assaulted" doesn't have the same force or definitive terminology as "rape." People often need more explanation to understand, and for some victims, including me, saying out loud what happened is almost more painful than the experience itself.

For years I have been made to feel guilty because I wasn't actually raped. Saying to a sexual assault victim, "well it's not like you were raped" is similar to saying to a gunshot victim "well it's not like you died." Just because the absolute worst possible outcome didn't occur doesn't diminish the seriousness of the events that did.

According to RAINN, one out of every six American women has been victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. In 2002, there were approximately 91,000 victims of sexual assault -- more than either attempted or completed rape.

If these numbers don't scare you, they should. Sexual assault is just as victimizing and traumatic as rape and should be treated as such. Diminishing the event as not-rape only traumatizes the victim further.

It's taken me five years to be at a point in my life where I can even write that I'm a sexual assault victim. The hardest thing for me to come to terms with was not only did I know and trust the person, it happened in a supposedly safe place -- in my school while class was in session.

According to the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children Web site, of all women who are sexually assaulted, 69 percent are assaulted by men they know.

While many sexual assault situations are not preventable, being aware and careful can sometimes make all the difference. In the unfortunate event that you or someone you know is sexually assaulted or raped, please encourage them get help. I waited too long to admit I needed help, and ignoring it doesn't make it go away. I thought I was alone or less victimized because it wasn't actual rape. Knowing I wasn't the only person to have to go through this trauma helped me make the first major steps towards recovery. Thank you for letting me share with you what has been a deep dark secret for the past five years. For more information on sexual assaults, go to the RAINN Web site at RAINN also operates the sexual assault hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE, providing free and confidential counseling 24 hours a day.