The FBI defines “rape” as any non-consensual insertion of a body part or object into the vagina, mouth, or anus. “Sexual assault” includes attempted rape or any forced, nonconsensual sex.
The good news is that, like other violent crimes in the U.S., since the 1990s, sexual assaults have declined. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from 1995 to 2010, the estimated annual rate of female sexual assault declined 58 percent, from 5.0 victimizations per 1,000 women age twelve or older to 2.1 per 1,000. In 1995, women’s lifetime risk was around 20 percent. Today, it’s less than 10 percent.
But the bad news comes from nation’s most authoritative crime database, the annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) compiled from interviews with a representative sample of 160,000 Americans about their crime experiences during the previous year, whether or not they called the police. In 2016, the NCVS documented 431,840 sexual assaults. Around 90 percent of victims were women. And of those assaults, about 20 percent involved more than one perpetrator.
Sexual Assault: Less Sexual Than Violent
Sexual assault has more to do with assault than sex. It’s similar to mugging except that victims get robbed of their dignity instead of—or in addition to—their money. Any man who has ever been beaten up and robbed on the street can appreciate some of what women endure during and after sexual assault. During the attack, the typical mugging survivor fears being seriously harmed or killed, followed by a haunting feeling that personal safety is a cruel illusion.
Now suppose that, instead of simply intimidating you with a weapon, imagine that the mugger—or group of them—ripped your clothes off and forced one or more erections into your mouth or anus. Would you consider that a “sex” crime? It involves genitals so it’s sexual, but like women, men who experience sexual assault focus much less on the sex than on the assault.
How Men Can Help
If the woman you love survives a sexual assault:
• Support her for surviving. Some rapists kill their victims, and many threaten them with death. Anything women did to survive was the right thing to do. Never say, “You should have….” Survivors are certain to obsess about “what if” and “I should have…” Your job is to provide reassurance: “You survived. What you did was right.”
• Survivors should always be in charge. Survivors should make every decision in response to the assault. They were attacked. They had their dignity trampled. A key element of healing involves regaining that precious feeling of control over one’s life. Whatever women decide to do, support their decisions, even if you disagree. Rapists are most likely to be convicted if survivors call the police immediately and don’t bathe or clean up until any evidence—semen, hair—has been collected. But women may rather bathe and not call the police. Feel free to point out the implications. But once survivors have made their decisions, support them.
• Avoid accusations. Women don’t “invite” rape by dressing provocatively, hiking alone in remote areas, giving directions to strangers, or anything else. Most survivors beat themselves up about this for a long time without anyone else saying a word.
• Don’t take revenge. If survivors can identify their attackers, don’t grab a weapon and take off after them. Survivors have just dealt with one or more men who were completely out of control. Don’t become another. Control yourself. Stay with her. Be there for her. Listen.
• Encourage her to get help. Some survivors crave professional help. Others don’t want it. Whatever they decide, support their decisions. If survivors want help, offer to find the nearest rape crisis center and take them there. Or find therapists who deal with sexual trauma. Offer to help pay for therapy.
• Get help yourself. Lovers’ sexual assaults may raise difficult issues for men: revenge, self-criticism, and perhaps memories of times when men recall pushing a bit too hard for sex. This might be a good time to explore those issues with a professional.
• Reassure survivors of your love. Tell survivors you still love them, cherish them, and don’t consider them “damaged goods.”
• Brace yourself. Some survivors become enraged. You may become a target of their anger. You’re not the rapist, but trauma survivors often berate the men closest to them. If survivors throw bombs, do your best not to blow up. Gently remind them that you love and respect them.
• Don’t press for sex. Most survivors need to take a temporary break from partner sex. Respect that need. Tell survivors you care about them more than you care about sex with them. Say that often. Let survivors decide when to resume the sexual part of their relationships. If you get tired of waiting, consider couple counseling or sex therapy.
• Offer nonsexual sensuality. Survivors might not want intercourse, but may enjoy cuddling, massage, and time at a day spa.
• Continue to listen. As time passes, it’s natural to say, “It’s over. Don’t dwell on it.” But many survivors need to process their assaults for what may seem “too long.” Give them all the time they need. Most survivors have a difficult year or so, then the horror slowly fades, though memories linger.
• Have fun together. Offer to arrange outings or get tickets to shows. Survivors may feel unable to have fun. Keep offering. You both may feel you’re just going through the motions, but over time, activities together aid recovery.
Men Also Get Raped
For poignant insights into male victimization, read Deliverance by James Dickey, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, or Fortune and Men’s Eyes by John Herbert, or see the movies. But the overwhelming majority of victims are women.
If A Woman You Love Has Ever Been Stalked
Stalking is a form of harassment that causes reasonable people—overwhelmingly women—to fear harm. Stalking includes: persistent unwelcome phone calls, messages, texts, or emails; approaching or confronting victims in places when they neither expect nor want contact; and spying on victims with cameras or listening devices. Stalking is a crime in all fifty states.
Stalking gets nowhere near as much media attention as sexual assault and child sex abuse, but it’s fairly prevalent and always unnerving. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime:
• At some point in life, 15 percent of women and 6 percent of men get stalked.
• Most stalkers are current or former lovers, friends, or acquaintances.
• Around two-thirds of victims are in their teens or twenties.
• About half of victims experience at least one unwanted contact a week.
• Among women killed by current or former lovers, 76 percent were stalked beforehand.
• Before being killed by stalkers, half of women reported the stalking to police.
Few women mention that they’re being or have been stalked, so few men have any idea. Tip-offs include: suddenly switching jobs, changing contact information, or moving for no apparent reason, and being unusually apprehensive.
If you suspect that a woman you know is being stalked:
• Ask. Don’t demand to know. Telling you is her decision. Assure her that you care about her, abhor stalking, and want to help.
• Does she feel threatened now? If so, encourage her to contact the police. Many women refuse, saying the police don’t do anything. In that case, quietly contact the police yourself and ask how they deal with stalking. In recent years, many police departments have become more responsive, confronting stalkers and insisting they stop immediately or risk jail. If the police appear respionsive, gently share your findings and encourage women to report. Then support their decisions, even if you disagree.
• Never stalk an ex. If a woman dumps you, you have every right to feel sad, confused, betrayed, and angry. But relationships require mutual consent. She has the right to break up with you. Grieve your loss. Scream about her to friends. But leave her alone. You don’t own her and never did. Stalking her won’t bring her back. It’s more likely to convince her she was right to leave you. Not to mention that stalking might land you in jail.
Have I left anything out? If yo have an experience with sexual assault or stalking, please add your advice for men who want to help loved ones recover.
Sexual assault statistics
Horvath, Miranda et al. Handbook on the Study of Multiple Perpetrator Rape. Routledge, 2013, page 15.
Katrina Baum et al., “Stalking Victimization in the United States,” (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009).
Blauuw, E. et al., “The Toll of Stalking,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence (2002) 17:50-63.
Breiding, M.J. et al., “Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization – National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report (2014) 63:8.
McFarlane, J. et al., “Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide,” Homicide Studies (2009) 3:4.