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Date Rape: Who You Do Know Can Hurt You

January 6, 2010

Whether you know it or not, you know a survivor of acquaintance rape. Sometimes called “date rape,” this is a real and common problem in our society. Acquaintance rape happens between people who know each other, which sometimes makes it very complicated and difficult to believe by many people, including the victim themselves. After all, our friends and acquaintances are not rapists, are they?

Some statistics show that 1 in 6 females, and as many as 1 in 33 males, have reported an attempted or completed rape at some time in their lives. The National Center for Victims of Crime states that 77% of rapes are committed by people that the victim knew.

WHAT IS DATE RAPE?

There seems to be a tainted perspective that rape happens to people who are “asking for it” based on their appearance or behavior. Or that it is a crime that, by definition, happens in dark alleys by some horrible, threatening, and unidentifiable monster of a man using a weapon to control his victim. This is simply not the reality in the vast majority of rape cases, and certainly not acquaintance rape. Acquaintance rape can happen to anyone at anytime. Simply put, it is sex without consent. Consent, however, is often misunderstood, or misinterpreted, by one or both people in an acquaintance rape.

Sexual assault is considered the use of coercion or force in order for one person to have sexual intercourse with another person. That coercion, can be in the form of brute force, a real or imagined threat resulting in fear, and unwanted touching or penetration either orally, vaginally or anally against one’s will. Any indication – verbal or physical – that someone does not want it, means it is rape. Unfortunately, with acquaintance rape, those signals are often muted either by one person being afraid to speak up, or by situations involving drugs and alcohol in which the judgment of both parties can be severely impaired.

HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?

Alcohol is widely considered the number one date rape drug. Drinking – whether at a bar, restaurant or party – diminishes a person’s ability to negotiate and give consent. It may not sound like a big deal, but having sex under the influence may very well add up to rape.  In many places, the law states that drinking is not a defense. Claiming that you were unaware that the other party had been drinking, or that your own judgment was impaired by drinking, is not a defense. According to the law, it is a rape.

WHO DOES THIS HAPPEN TO?

It may be tempting to look at this as a problem that happens to other people. People who “party” too much, maybe going out after work and getting reckless.  Surely, that’s something we all do. However, it is a problem that is affecting our youth, and surprisingly young ages.

The “Tween Relationship Study” by Liz Claiborne Inc. conducted in January 2008  revealed some surprising data about the dating behavior of teens and tweens. This study surveyed parents of tweens , tweens aged 11-14 years old, and teens aged 15-18 years old. Nearly half of tweens surveyed have been in dating relationships. Sex or ‘going all the way’ is considered to be part of tween dating relationships as surveyed by tweens and parents (28% vs. 26%). Parents, however, consistently believed that it is not their child who is having sex. Twice as many tweens as parents know a friend or peer who has been pressured to have oral sex (8% vs. 4%) and who have been pressured to have sex against their will (9% vs. 5%).

Although this illustrates a very messy and confusing situation, it presents a very clear need to communicate with teens and tweens about when and how to say “no,” and how to keep themselves as safe as possible.

There are obvious things to teach our children, like not drinking to the point of incapacitation, staying aware of our surroundings and learning how to say “no” as forcefully as necessary. However, there is more to it than that. We need to have serious discussions about finding our own boundaries and sticking with them. In addition to teaching the mechanics of sexuality to our youth, we need to teach the subtleties of self-awareness and self-respect. How to find their own comfort level and stay within it. How to say “yes” to safe pleasure, and “no” to the things that make us feel threatened or vulnerable. And most importantly, create a safe environment for them to come forward when they have been abused.

WHAT IF IT HAPPENS TO ME, OR A FRIEND?

However vigilant and well intentioned we are, rape still happens, and it will likely happen to someone you know. It’s important to know what to do, and what to expect, if it does.

When a sexual assault has taken place, one of the most helpful things one can do is to listen to and believe the person who was assaulted. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault and they need to feel supported.

Beyond emotional support, there are legal and medical considerations to be aware of, and the person who was assaulted is not likely to be able to think through them on their own.

1. Encourage the person NOT to shower, go to the bathroom, eat, brush teeth, or change clothing. This is crucial because these actions potentially eliminate evidence that may be used to prosecute the perpetrator.

2. Encourage them to go to the Emergency Room for a full examination. This is a delicate and difficult thing to do, as most people in this situation do not want to be touched by anyone else. However, there are important medical reasons to be seen by a doctor immediately. A head to toe exam is conducted for both medical and legal reasons. This exam enables the collection of evidence, which is preserved in the form of a Sexual Assault Evidence (SAE) kit. Photo documentation may take place, which records information on a traumagram or a body map in the medico-legal chart. Evaluation of medical concerns including protection from Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), HIV risk assessment and prevention of an unwanted pregnancy is offered and treatment generally needs to be started within 72-hours.

Many hospitals have programs that provide advocacy for rape victims even when they leave the hospital. These programs offer specialized care for the sexual assault victim by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) or Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFE). These people are advocates for the patient and help navigate the post-assault process that can include medical care, counseling, social workers and law enforcement.

3. Another important consideration is involving law enforcement.  Just like going to the hospital, this can be tough to do, but can be very important.  Not only can successful prosecution provide closure for the survivor, it can be an important step in stopping the abusive behavior and creating a community that supports survivors and not assaults. SANE training includes preparation for being a witness in court if subpoenaed by Prosecution or Defense.

It can all be overwhelming, but there is a supportive system of professionals available to help survivors.

MAKE IT STOP

Realistically, not everyone is going to be a victim or a perpetrator of acquaintance rape.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be discussed, understood and addressed. Amidst all of the mixed-messages we face about sex and sexuality in the media, it is important to remember a few rules of dating and sex.

1.Never assume. – Just because someone looks sexy to you, it does not mean they want to have sex with you. Just because you feel sexy, it does not mean you are giving anyone permission to have sex with you.

2. Ask before you proceed. Sometimes we don’t know our boundaries until we are standing on them. Before you take any sexual activity to the next step, ask your partner if it’s okay. Just as importantly, ask yourself, and speak up if it’s not okay with you.

3. A good lover is a good listener. Whether it’s about safe sex, no sex or how to have sex, open lines of communication are essential between lovers. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing these things with the person you’re about to have sex with, you should think twice about having sex with them.

As a society, is it possible to prevent sexual assault by an acquaintance? Yes, if several things happen. “No” means no and is non-negotiable. “Yes” means yes and is a sign of good communication that can lead to great sex. Together, we can change the norms in society by advocating for equitable relationships, making respectable choices in our relationships and embracing healthy sexuality, one partner at a time.

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