Decklar: Defining sexual assault and harassment
What happened to me on the bus was not “20 minutes of action,” as Stanford sex offender Brock Turner’s father might say, or even “locker room talk,” as Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump defined sexual harassment and assault.
I walked onto the bus to escape the downpour, and sat in front of a man who gazed up and down my body. As the bus left the station, he started moaning and subtly hitting the metal next to my arm. Unbeknown to me, the man was rubbing himself behind me. Jolted in fear, I inched my body away from his fingers on the metal and tried to ignore his moaning until he grasped my arm and groaned, “Oooh, girl.”
My whole body froze in terror.
I do not remember getting off the bus. My brain could not find the words to describe the incident as I reached for “sexual harassment,” but I feared no one would believe me.
What happened to me did not fit the state of Oregon’s definition of sexual offenses, as the man did not “penetrate” me and I was not mentally or physically “defective.” Never mind that my physical and mental boundaries were crossed by this man — I was not sexually assaulted or harassed, according to the state. According to the law, behavior like this is not only legal, it is commonly accepted.
But I am not the only one whose body has been sexually violated and their experiences invalidated.
Not only do these 13 women worry about whether their stories fit the definition of sexual assault, but society is peering at their photographs and judging whether they are attractive enough for Trump — dismissing their stories altogether.
Attractiveness is not cause for verification of sexual assault. The shape of my body and the clothes I chose to wear on the bus that day should not be considered facts in deciding if what happened to me was sexual harassment. But then again, who could I talk with considering the fact that my experience does not match the definition of sexual assault?
Speechlessness is a frequent problem in many assault cases. Even when survivors do speak, as was the case for the survivor of Turner’s assault, their validity is questioned by the law.
In a letter the survivor read to Turner in court, she was asked about wearing a cardigan the night of the assault and what color her cardigan was. Every time the words “what were you wearing” rang through her ears, the survivor lived through the violent experience of not knowing who assaulted her. This question is an example of what often happens when survivors report an incident: the probing of their bodies, minds and validity.
When the law questions the survivor in this damaging way, the law harms the survivor.
Survivors are not just women, as one out of every ten survivors identifies as male and 21 percent of transgender, non-conforming and genderqueer college students have been sexually assaulted. The current definition of sexual assault and harassment disregards these statistics and defines rape without accounting for the survivors’ perspectives.
Although many of these incidents are traumatizing, some argue that many people falsely report sexual assault which makes a legislative definition of sexual assault and harassment essential. Yet, according to Roger Williams University, “Statistical studies indicate false reports make up two percent or less of the reported cases of sexual assault.”
To avoid reliving the trauma within cases like Turner’s, only one out of every ten rapes are actually reported. Survivors end up blaming themselves for the violation of their bodies, which silences survivors and strengthens sexual violence.
When the definition of sexual assault and harassment does not center on the survivor, justice is lost.
However, advocacy centers like Sexual Assault Support Services in Lane County are attempting to end sexual violence with survivor-centered approaches. SASS staff always believe the survivor and ask them only one question: “How can I support you?”
Unless the definition for sexual assault and harassment changes, survivors will never be given the power and strength they need to heal. Every person’s body and boundaries are their own, meaning every survivor’s definition must be theirs, especially due to the traumatizing effects of reporting — which will inevitably widen the acts that are classified as sexual assault.
When validation comes from the survivor and spreads to the courts, then there will be justice.
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