Surviving a sexual assault, no matter what the circumstances were or how long ago it happened, can change the way you experience sex. For some, sexual contact can trigger upsetting memories or physical reactions, or leave them feeling sad or distressed afterward. Others may develop an unhealthy relationship with sex; they may have lots of it, but aren’t able to really enjoy intimacy with a caring partner.
Of course, not everyone who survives sexual assault or harassment struggles with these issues later on, notes Kristen Carpenter, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and director of women’s behavioral health at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. “It doesn’t automatically mean that your life is going to be upended in this way,” she says, “some people definitely recover from it and are able to move on.”
But for those women who are struggling, it’s important to know they’re not alone. Research suggests that the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in sexual assault survivors is as high as 94%, and treatment exists that can help. If you suspect that an assault in your past might be affecting your sex life now, here’s what experts recommend.
Recognize the root of the problem
For some women who have been sexually assaulted, it’s painfully clear to them that their experiences have tainted the way they think about sex now. But it’s also surprisingly common for survivors to suppress or downplay the memories of those experiences, and not realize—or be able to readily admit—why sexual intimacy is something they struggle with now.
“Women don’t often come in saying, ‘I was sexually assaulted and I need help,’ says Carpenter. “What usually happens is they go to their gynecologist saying, ‘I’m not interested in sex,’ or ‘Sex is painful,’” she says. “It’s only when they come to me, a psychologist, that we get into a deeper conversation and they realize how much an old experience has stayed with them.”
Get professional help
If you’ve realized that a past sexual assault is interfering with your ability to bond with or be physical with a new partner, it’s possible that you have a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those feelings may not go away on their own, but a licensed mental-health provider should be able to help.
“A lot of women are afraid that if they face those emotions, it will become overwhelming and their pain will never stop,” says Carpenter. “But addressing that trauma head-on is really important, with the caveat that you have to be ready for it—because it can be an incredibly difficult process.”
How much you want to share with your partner about a previous assault should be totally up to you, says Michelle Riba, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. But she does encourage patients to confide in their significant others if they feel comfortable doing so.
“I talk a lot with my patients about how soon and how much you want to divulge to someone you’re dating,” says Dr. Riba. “This is your medical history and it’s deeply personal, so it’s not necessarily something you want to talk about on your first or second date.”
It can help to anticipate some of the issues that may come up in a sexual relationship, and to talk through—ideally with a therapist—how you will address them, says Dr. Riba. For example, if there’s a certain type of touching or certain language you know might have a visceral reaction to, it can be better to bring up before the situation arises, rather than in the heat of the moment.
Tell your partner about any sexual activity you’re not comfortable with
You should set boundaries with your partner, as well. “It’s very important to empower patients who have had a negative experience,” says Carpenter. “That person should drive the interaction with their partner, and should steer where and how far it goes.”
Of course, says Carpenter, it’s a good idea in any relationship—whether there’s a history of sexual assault or not—for partners to disclose what they are and aren’t comfortable with. “But it could be particularly important to be comfortable setting boundaries about likes, dislikes, and any behaviors that could be a trigger.”
That’s not to say that couples can’t try new things or spice up their sex life when one person has lived through a trauma. In fact, sexual assault survivors can sometimes find it therapeutic to act out sexual fantasies or participate in role-playing, says Ian Kerner, PhD, a New York City–based sex therapist—and this includes fantasies that involve submission. The key is that both partners remain comfortable with the situation throughout, and that every step is consensual.
Shift your thinking about sex
This one is easier said than done, but a mental-health professional can help you gradually change the way you think about sex, both consciously and subconsciously. The goal, according to Maltz, is to shift away from a sexual abuse mindset (in which sex is unsafe, exploitative, or obligatory) to a healthy sexual mindset (sex is empowering, nurturing, and, most importantly, a choice), says sex therapist Wendy Maltz, author of The Sexual Healing Journey.
You can help make this shift by avoiding exposure to media that portray sex as sexual abuse, says Maltz. That may include television programs or movies that portray rape; pornography that depicts aggressive or abusive situations; and even news reports about #MeToo accusations. It can also help for you and your partner to use language about sex that’s positive and healthy, rather than terms like “banging” and “nailing” that imply violence.
Put on the brakes, if needed
Sometimes it’s necessary to take some time off from sexual contact with a partner—even if your assault happened years ago but you’re just now coming to grips with its effects. “If people are struggling with intimacy, the first thing to do is really address the psychological symptoms associated with the assault,” says Carpenter. “I’ve found it’s best to leave intimacy until that’s concluded.”
You can use this time to work with a therapist, and—if you currently have a partner—to bond with him or her in other ways. “Once you feel better and some of those symptoms have subsided, then you can start to slowly rebuild your whole self in terms of your sexuality,” says Carpenter.
This may also be a time for experimenting with sensual self-care and masturbation, so you can rediscover the kind of physical contact you really do desire and enjoy. This can help you feel more in control, and more comfortable, incorporating these elements into your next physical relationship.
The body’s natural reaction to dealing with the trauma of sexual assault can have negative effects on a person’s long-term physical health.
by Leah Campbell
When Amber Stanley was 23 years old, a friend’s boyfriend raped her.
They had all been at a party together. She had fallen asleep in one of the spare rooms. When she woke up, he was on top of her.
“There were children asleep in the house, so I was afraid to scream,” she told Healthline. “I didn’t want to scare them or for them to see what was happening if they woke up.”
She told her friend what had happened the next day, and then went to the police. But there, she was essentially revictimized when the police officer with whom she filed her report questioned her story and credibility.
“He flat out told me that if he could prove I was lying, he would press charges against me. My rapist was in the army, a ‘national hero,’ so my word wasn’t good enough and he was never prosecuted,” she said.
Stanley says she’s been in therapy on and off for the last 13 years, trying to deal with what happened to her that night. And she still struggles with anxiety today.
“I don’t like feeling like I’m not in control of things. And I don’t like being around groups of people who are drinking, or alone at night doing things like shopping. I’m highly suspicious of strangers, even more so now that I have three daughters,” she said.
For Stanley, one of the worst nights of her life has turned into a lifelong struggle. And she’s not alone.
The many effects of sexual assault on health
A recent study presented at The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) annual meeting in October revealed that a history of sexual harassment was associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and clinically poorer sleep quality.
For survivors of sexual assault, there was an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety, and sleep issues consistent with clinical disorders as well.
In other words, experiencing sexual harassment or sexual assault contributed to negative long-term health outcomes for survivors.
Sexual assault survivor advocates also report that survivors may be more resistant to going to the dentist and doctor, as both can require a fair amount of trust and invasiveness. This can contribute to health complications as well.
Out of 300 study participants, 19 percent reported workplace sexual harassment, 22 percent reported a history of sexual assault, and 10 percent reported having experienced both.
In light of the recent #MeToo movement, those numbers are only surprising because of how low they are.
A national study on sexual harassment and assault released by the organization Stop Street Harassment in February 2018 reported that 81 percent of women would experience some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault in their lifetime.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center also reports that 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives, 1 in 3 women will experience some form of contact sexual violence, and nearly two-thirds of college students will experience sexual harassment.
This means there are a lot of women potentially susceptible to a host of long-term health complications.
What experts say
Lisa Fontes, PhD, is a researcher, activist, author, and psychotherapist. She told Healthline that sexual assault and sexual harassment are both considered trauma. During trauma, the body releases hormones that help a person cope with the emergency.
“The body releases cortisol to avoid pain and inflammation, and it raises our blood sugar to help us flee from danger. Unfortunately, these physical responses become long-lasting for many survivors of sexual assault and harassment, contributing to poor health,” she said.
She explains sexual harassment is considered a “chronic stressor,” because it’s typically sustained over time. Child abuse and intimate partner sexual abuse also often involve repeated assaults, leading the survivor into a constant state of hyperalertness.
“Even a one-time sexual assault can produce long-term consequences as the survivor copes with intrusive memories that make her feel as if she is enduring parts of the assault again and again,” Fontes added.
Healthline also spoke to Elaine Ducharme, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist. She talks about the repeated trauma that occurs even with singular assaults.
“You have the trauma at the time the event happens,” she explained. “Then if it’s reported, there is repeated trauma because you are talking about it and dealing with it again and again throughout the process of pursuing charges.”
But even for those who don’t report or press charges, the trauma can continue.
“For people who have children, we often see a flare-up of trauma when the child reaches the age they were at the time the assault occurred,” Ducharme explained. “And even for women who think they are fine, years down the line they may see a movie with a rape scene and suddenly feel like they want to throw up.”
For many women, the recent #MeToo movement has proven to be empowering and healing. But for some, it’s resulted in having to relive those memories and experience the trauma all over again.
For those women, Ducharme suggests taking a break from media and considering a return to therapy.
“They may need to learn ways to manage the anxiety that can be triggered by some of this, and using mindfulness can be helpful,” she said. “I’m a huge believer in working with my clients to help them settle themselves down and be mindful and in the moment, trying to learn to stay present.”
“I don’t blame the #MeToo movement for the fact that we are hearing more about sexual assault these days,” Fontes added. “I blame the assailants and the years of cover-ups.”
When asked what advice she would have for women struggling with the mental and physical health implications of their past experiences with sexual harassment or sexual assault, Fontes said, “There is power and healing in numbers.”
If you’re currently struggling, Fontes suggests the following:
See if your local women’s crisis center has a discussion group you could join.
Speak with trusted loved ones about how you’re feeling.
She says those who return to therapy may not need a lot of sessions — just a few to figure out how to cope with the new landscape.
“Sexual abuse is so common. There is no reason any woman has to feel like she is alone, or to suffer alone,” Fontes said.
For millions of girls growing up in evangelical Christianity, sexuality is a sin. Girls are sexual “stumbling blocks,” they’re told—a danger to the relationship between men and God.
Such is the way of the purity movement. Emerging out of white evangelicalism in the early 1990s, the conservative Christian movement—today promoted by both local churches and national organizations such as Focus on the Family and True Love Waits—emphasizes sexual purity and abstinence-only education. The cornerstone: If women remain virgins until the day they marry a man, they’re holy; if not, they’re damaged goods. To avoid the latter outcome, young adults are required to make promises—signified in the form of purity balls, rings, and pledges—to remain abstinent from puberty ’til “I do.”
In purity culture, both young men and women are taught that sex before marriage is wrong. But it’s teenage girls who end up most affected, Klein finds, because while boys are taught that their minds are a gateway to sin, women are taught that their bodies are. After years of being told that they’re responsible for not only their own purity, but the purity of the men and boys around them; and of associating sexual desire with depravity and shame, Klein writes, those feelings often haunt women’s relationships with their bodies for a lifetime.
Klein knows from personal experience. After realizing she couldn’t be the woman the church wanted her to be, she left the evangelical community in the early 2000s. It was at that point, when she began considering having sex, that the symptoms started. “It began when I took the possibility of having sex and put it on the table,” Klein tells Broadly. “From that point on, sometimes it was my boyfriend and I being sexual that would make me have these breakdowns where I was in tears, scratching myself until I bled and ending up on the corner of the bed crying.”
Klein knew immediately that the reactions were linked to her religious upbringing, but assumed it was specific to her. “I never wondered where it came from, I just wondered why it was manifesting that way,” she says. “It couldn’t be that everyone who was taught these things were having these experiences, because surely I would have heard about it.”
Eventually, though, Klein realized that she wasn’t nearly alone. In 2006, she began compiling dozens of testimonies from childhood friends involved in the purity movement and found that they were all experiencing similar feelings of fear, shame, and anxiety in relationship to sex. “Based on our nightmares, panic attacks, and paranoia, one might think that my childhood friends and I had been to war,” writes Klein. “And in fact, we had. We went to war with ourselves, our own bodies, and our own sexual natures, all under the strict commandment of the church.”
Today, Klein considers the phenomenon an epidemic. When she first realized the scope and severity of what she was researching, she decided to quit her job—at the age of 26—and dedicate herself to learning more about the effects of purity culture. She went on to earn an interdisciplinary Master’s degree from New York University, for which she wrote a thesis on white American evangelicalism’s messaging toward girls that involved interviewing hundreds of current and past evangelicals about the impact of the purity movement on their lives. Eventually, those seeds of research grew into Pure.
A 12-year labor of love, the resulting book is an eye-opening blend of memoir, journalism, and cultural commentary that masterfully illustrates how religion, shame, and trauma can inform one another. Citing medical studies, she lays out that evangelical adolescents are the least likely “to expect sex to be pleasurable, and among the most likely to expect that having sex will make them feel guilty.” And in comparison to boys, Klein observes, girls are 92 percent more likely to feel shame—especially girls who are highly religious. For many women, like Klein, that shame can manifest in physical symptoms.
Klein observes and cites an expert who found that many women who grow up in purity culture and eventually begin having sex report experiencing an involuntary physical tightening of the vagina—also known as vaginismus—that is linked to a fear of penetrative sex and makes intercourse extremely painful. This could also be considered a symptom of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS), a diagnosis developed by Dr. Marlene Winell, a psychologist in San Francisco and author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. According to Winell, as quoted by Klein, RTS is a condition “experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.” The symptoms resemble those of PTSD, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorders, and can result in depression, sexual difficulty, and negative views about the self.
Perhaps more convincing than the medical research and professionals that Klein cites, though, is the wealth of testimonies she gathers from women. One woman she spoke to described having years of awkward, uncomfortable sex with her husband until she began to feel overcome by such extreme exhaustion, she had difficulty getting out of bed. Another shared that after her first sexual experience, her body began to shake uncontrollably. In one extreme account, a woman said that feelings of panic and guilt flooded her mind “like a cloud of locusts” after an early sexual encounter. Soon after, orange-sized welts broke out on her stomach, arms, back, and breasts and it became difficult to breathe. After jumping into the shower to find relief, welts the size of both of her palms formed on her vagina. “I would say it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” she told Klein. “I had no idea what was happening to me. My legs, my face, everything was bright red. It felt like I had absolutely no control over these horrific, nightmarish things that were happening to my body.” The woman was rushed to the emergency room, and though the doctors told her she went into anaphylactic shock, they couldn’t explain what caused it. While she knows something medical happened, she told Klein that’s she is certain something spiritual happened to her as well—the result of what happens “when you tempt Satan.”
Pure is a thorough and focused study on the effects of the purity movement’s rhetoric on women and girls, but Klein stresses that her findings aren’t relevant only to religious conservatives. Rather, they represent an extreme microcosm of a broader culture of gendered sexual shaming to which we should all be paying attention.
“The conclusion that I reached was that the evangelical culture is useful because it provides a mirror of what’s happening in other places in the culture,” Klein says. “You see what happens when you have high doses of this toxic messaging. But the reality is that this toxic messaging is everywhere and we’re all taking in unhealthy amounts of it.”
The wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who is accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault years ago, raises questions about the long-term emotional and physical toll this kind of trauma takes on survivors and how our society responds to those who come forward long after the assault.
Emily R. Dworkin, a senior fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, studies how the social interactions of trauma survivors can affect their recovery. She was also the lead author of a paper published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review in 2017 that looked through more than 100,000 studies conducted in the last 50 years and found nearly 200 relevant ones on the relationship between sexual assault and mental health to analyze.
What she found, Dworkin says, is strong evidence that sexual assault is associated with an increased risk for multiple forms of psychological harm “across most populations, assault types and methodological differences in studies.” Too many survivors still face stigma and internalize that blame, and that can make it harder to seek help. And while some types of therapy have been shown to be helpful, she says, more information on evidence-based treatments for survivors “is critically needed.”
Dworkin talked with NPR about her research findings and offered her perspective on where society and science need to go next to prevent assaults and help survivors heal. Our interview was edited for length and clarity.
You looked at a lot of studies about the mental health impact of sexual assault, but it’s not an area as well-studied as say, heart disease. So what do we know?
Sexual assault [any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without the consent of both people] began getting research attention in the ’70s as society as a whole was going through a feminist awakening, and it kind of developed at the same time as PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which was then known as “combat trauma.” Many things can lead to depression or anxiety. People with PTSD relive the trauma in the form of intrusive memories, nightmares, or even flashbacks. They avoid things that remind them of the trauma.
The symptoms that people were showing when they were coming home from war were the same as victims of rape trauma — recurring memories and a wish to avoid triggering them.
These days, lots of people are doing research, but there’s still a lot left to understand. What we do know is that sexual assault is associated with a higher risk for a lot of different mental health problems, including PTSD [and depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality] … especially PTSD.
What do we know about how ethnicity and education affects the mental health of survivors of sexual assault?
We need to know more. Some of my past research on queer women shows that ongoing forms of stress can compound stress. And we know that people from marginalized groups are just at greater risk for sexual assault [and a number of other health problems]. So it’s likely that these groups experience more trauma — but I don’t think we can completely say for sure.
How does sexual assault compare with other forms of trauma, in terms of effects on mental health?
We never want to have the Olympics of trauma. But compared to other types of life-threatening trauma, survivors of sexual assault do seem to be more likely to get PTSD. In my preliminary look at the data from 39 studies on this topic, it seems like 36 percent of survivors meet criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD in their lifetime, versus 12 percent of people who don’t have a history of sexual assault.
My thinking is that sexual assault is a unique form of trauma. It is highly stigmatized, and when people go to seek help for it, unlike in a car accident — well, the police are not going to ask you if you’ve really been in a car accident.
Also, people don’t always do the most effective job of supporting sexual assault survivors. Sometimes they do things that can actually compound the trauma. In the ’70s it was known as “the second rape” when you tell the police, undergo a rape kit exam and explain it to family and friends. They don’t always know how to help.
What can survivors who are feeling overwhelmed, depressed and traumatized do to recover, and how can friends and family help?
It’s important for survivors to know that they can regain a sense of power over those triggers, and that the most natural response is to push away the triggers. Self-care isn’t about turning off those bad feelings, but feeling those feelings so that they can subside naturally.
It’s kind of a counterintuitive idea, and it’s not what we usually think to do for our loved ones. When somebody’s in pain, all you want to do is to take that pain away. It’s understandable to try to distract them, take them out for a drink, but it’s better to be a shoulder to cry on. You don’t need to cheer somebody up in the moment. Be there for them as a witness to their pain.
What about the professionals — the police, the lawyers, the therapists — that survivors need to talk to? How can they do a better job?
This all comes back to … dealing with the false beliefs we have around sexual assault — blaming the victim, challenging the victim’s choices. Changing these cultural norms is important.
One of the evidence-based treatments for PTSD is overcoming the trauma by sharing the story. That’s a very different thing than being forced to tell it in public.
I don’t want to imply that it’s the survivor’s fault they have PTSD. And they feel like they don’t want to relive it again, which is totally natural. But our bodies can’t sustain that intense emotional response for long — those feelings come down naturally.
In my clinical work, a woman came to me with her story of sexual assault. The first time she told it, she was crying. By the fourth time, she was almost yawning. Her story is not one that has power over her anymore. She has the control over whether she’s going to have her life altered.
Has the public’s perception of sexual assault changed since the Kavanaugh hearings?
I think about this stuff every day. I’ve been thinking it about every day since I was 18 and beginning my research. It takes me awhile to catch up and realize that everyone else is thinking about it now.
My hope is that we’re changing some of the cultural conversation around this.
It’s important to know that most of the disorders are very treatable conditions. I do feel like if survivors can get connected to evidence-based treatments, they can be helped — even years later.
What are the resources and treatments that work best for survivors who are experiencing PTSD or other mental health symptoms?
First-line options should be things that we know work well. What I recommend is prolonged exposure therapy [helping people gradually approach trauma-related memories and feelings] or cognitive processing therapy [a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps patients learn how to challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma]. Both have been around since the ’80s and were developed to treat survivors of rape. They have really strong evidence of reducing symptoms or eliminating the diagnosis [of a mental health disorder].
As a society, what should we focus on to help survivors of assault?
Ending some of our stigmatizing beliefs about sexual assault and our mistrust for people that come forward is huge. It’s always up to survivors as to whether they disclose. The fact that we’re having these conversations in the public sphere gives me hope.
In schools, [to prevent unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault in the first place] we can teach respect for others and their autonomy. We’re not comfortable with the idea of hearing about these sorts of assaults. Our cultural norm is to avoid uncomfortable experiences. … But we need to keep talking.
What we can learn from the Dutch: Talking openly about bodies helps keep shame at bay, and may help a child speak up if there is a problem.
By Bonnie J. Rough
As a growing number of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport stories have put a new focus on childhood sexual abuse, parents may have an urgent sense that they should frame conversations with their children about their bodies as safety lessons.
But doubling down on warnings is the opposite of what children really need. In researching my new book about how gender equality begins with great sex ed, I learned that teaching what’s good about bodies, sex and love is actually what gives children a secure sense of body sovereignty, boundaries and consent.
Here are three essential lessons parents of children under 6 can follow to help kids stay safe, confident and shame-free in their skin.
Begin with body positivity
When my oldest daughter turned 3, a certain worry started to keep me up at night. I sensed that her risk of sexual abuse was increasing with her age, and I needed to teach her more about her body in order to keep her safe. Here’s what I know now that I didn’t see then: My motivation to start the birds-and-bees talks was fear.
But after living in the Netherlands with my family and learning how the Dutch approach to sex education in homes and schools produces some of the world’s best sexual health outcomes and highest levels of gender equality, I discovered the problem with fear as motivation: When children learn that certain body parts are dangerous and invite trouble, they learn sexual shame. And shame, in turn, is the mechanism that perpetrators of sexual violence rely upon to keep victims silent.
According to the Dutch approach (and many American sexuality educators), risks and warnings should not dominate our body conversations with kids. Instead, teaching body positivity — the joy, fun and privilege of living physical human lives — helps keep shame, secrecy and silence at bay.
“Tell your children sexuality is something beautiful and should be enjoyed but only if both people want it in the same way,” says Sanderijn van der Doef, a Dutch psychologist and the author of a series of children’s books on bodies and sexuality popular in the Netherlands. “For young children, you should be clear that sexual intercourse and sexual relations are especially for adults.”
Teaching body positivity means letting babies and toddlers freely explore their own bodies. It means avoiding grossed-out faces and language (try calling a diaper “full” instead of “dirty”) in teaching hygiene. It means talking about reproductive body parts cheerfully, with correct language and affirming tones. And it means helping children discover what they like and don’t like: Is tickling on the arms O.K., but not the feet? At bedtime, does this sleepy preschooler like her back rubbed, scratched or traced over? Does the toddler want to be picked up by Grandpa, but not Auntie? We can help children to recognize the gut feelings that reveal our individual boundaries.
Don’t treat body parts as shameful
Shame about body parts, Ms. Van der Doef says, comes from a child’s environment: they learn from their caregivers when to be squeamish and embarrassed. By normalizing all body parts and speaking of them regularly and straightforwardly with correct language, we send the message that every part of a person’s body is healthy, wholesome and worthy.
As I learned from the Dutch example, normalization goes beyond talk: day-to-day nonsexual nudity — in homes, picture books, mixed-gender school bathrooms, kids’ television programs, and public changing areas and wading pools — reinforces the tenet that bodies are nothing to be ashamed of and nothing we can’t discuss (in words any caregiver, teacher or health provider will recognize) if need be.
As we respond to kids’ natural, healthy curiosity about the human form, we can instill in them the idea that all people are born with wonderful bodies capable of feeling pleasure and pain.
Teach the importance of consent
It can be daunting to explain the emotional and relational aspects of human sexuality. Yet this is our richest opportunity to instill empathy, consent, inclusiveness and egalitarianism.
Preschool is the age to teach children the hallmarks of a healthy, trusting friendship. Children at this age can be made aware of the gender-role stereotypes they’ve absorbed (for example, girls like pink and boys have short hair). A simple role-play with stuffed animals in which a “girl” teddy bear wants to play football and a “boy” animal wants to wear a dress can teach it’s hurtful to limit one anther’s opportunities.
Preschoolers and even toddlers can learn rules for playing contact games with friends such as tickling, chase and “doctor”: everyone must agree happily to the game; no hurting allowed; anyone can say “no” or change their mind. As adults, we can model the importance of consent when children want to climb on us by reminding them to ask first. We can model respect for the importance of consent, too, when a child is reluctant to give a high-five, hug or kiss — especially to an adult, and this does include Grandma — by suggesting a contact-free alternative like a verbal greeting or a wave.
Elsbeth Reitzema, a sex education consultant and curriculum author for the sexual health institute Rutgers in the Netherlands, says it’s impossible to warn children of every scenario and impossible, too, to protect them 100 percent of the time. Specific scenarios such as the lap-patting relative or lollipop-offering stranger can be good to mention, but it’s most important to instill an understanding of consent. This goes for friends, relatives, teachers and even physicians. When children expect to ask, give and deny consent at their own discretion, sexual transgressions stick out as clear violations.
Teaching consent has a protective effect against child sexual abuse by showing children that they can trust their instincts: When a grown-up or anyone else touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, they don’t have to cooperate. They have the right to say no.
Even a young child, Ms. Reitzema says, can tell the difference between a safe secret like a sister’s birthday surprise and an unsafe one that must be told to a trusted adult: Bad secrets don’t feel fun or happy.
Adults who promptly respond to a child’s report of abuse by believing, guarding and reassuring them they did nothing wrong help protect young victims from long-term trauma. One of the most supportive messages parents can give to kids, at any age, is: “If anyone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you can always tell me. I’m here to help.”
In 1990, a group of women gathered at Antioch College to talk about the growing problem of rape on their campus, drafting the very first version of the school’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP). In doing so, they created what we now know as affirmative consent, decades before anyone else began using the term. The policy required that Antioch students ask for consent at every step of sexual encounters, from the first kiss, to taking off clothes, to oral sex or penetration. In short, the group who created the SOPP flipped the widely accepted “no means no” definition of consent to a “yes means yes” definition. They were then mocked mercilessly by everyone from their classmates to Saturday Night Live for challenging the status quo.
Nearly 30 years later, people are finally seeing the wisdom of affirmative consent, and attempting to push the concept even further; the most popular consent definition of the moment, for instance, is enthusiastic consent,. It encourages people to ask for a verbal yes at every step of intimate interactions, but also recognizes that someone may feel coerced into agreeing to sex. So, in addition to the yes, enthusiastic consent encourages people to also notice nonverbal cues, such as whether or not their partner is kissing back, moaning, arching their back, or doing any number of things that makes it clear that they’re really turned on.
The conversation about consent took another turn when the #MeToo movement arose late last year. Now, people are talking about how masculinity factors in. Instead of just demonizing men for not understanding consent, we’re asking why they’re struggling with the concept in the first place. Mothers of young boys are starting to think about how to raise men to be good allies and to understand that they have to both ask for what they want and graciously accept when someone says no. Maybe it sounds simple, but it’s a difficult task for a culture that tells boys and men that sex is, essentially, their birthright.
We’re just starting to deconstruct the concept of masculinity that makes consent so confusing for cisgender men. But we haven’t really touched upon how the narrative of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent change depending on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, financial background, ability, or other marginalized identities. Those conversations are happening, but they’re often relegated to minority groups, instead integrated into the mainstream conversation. As the consent conversation continues to evolve, we need to consider and address how sexual harassment and assault impacts various communities. Ahead, we talk to three leaders in sexual education — Bethany Saltman, who co-wrote Antioch’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy in the 1990s, Ted Bunch, the co-founder of the violence prevention organization A Call To Men, and Bianca Laureano, foundress of the Women Of Color Sexual Health Network — about the evolution of consent, what’s missing in mainstream conversations about consent, and what the next steps are to make consent unambiguous to all.
Bethany Saltman, co-writer of Antioch College’s SOPP
Tell me a little about being at Antioch in the 1990s. How did your group start talking about consent?
“We heard the stories about women who had been raped and nothing was being done, and so we decided right then and there that we were going to do something. So in the conversation about what we wanted to change, we thought about how the current understanding of whether or not a rape had occurred was always looking for the woman saying no. That was the narrative. So, kind of in our innocence, we said, ‘Well why don’t we just turn it around and say that you have to actually say yes?’ Not only to intercourse, but every time you escalate the interaction.”
It’s only recently that people are starting to see how amazing SOPP was. How long do you think it takes for radical change to happen?
“Generations. There are still so many people who think that [affirmative consent] is insane and ridiculous. The legal definition of rape and sexual assault is changing — but slowly.”
Is there anything missing in the conversations we’re having about consent right now?
“There are some conversations happening that are about the joy of consent. And that’s the conversation I would like to bring forward; consent is a path to kindness and pleasure in our bodies and in ourselves. We shouldn’t be looking at sexual delight as something that needs to be hidden in these dark recesses of desire. There’s definitely something to mystery, but I think that the more enlightened we become as a culture, the more we’ll see that we can be really honest with ourselves and allow for all the variation that is part of human sexuality and and still have a rockin’ good time. And what it means to be joyful and really saying yes to ourselves, especially as women. Because in order to say ‘yes’ you have to really want sex.”
Do you think the voices of men have a place in the conversation?
“Definitely. I’ve been teaching my daughter about what it means to consent her entire life. She gets to say who can touch her and who can kiss her, and I think we need to do that with all of our children. It’s really not even about boys and girls. You’re born with certain karma and a certain bag of tricks, and you need to know how to wield them respectfully. So 100%, every single one of us needs to be part of this conversation.”
How does intersectionality play in? Do you think different populations are having different conversations about consent?
“Absolutely. Black women are sexualized in ways that white women are not, and white women are sexualized in ways that Black women are not. I like to approach all conversations with the posture of listening as much as possible.”
So where do you think we go from here?
“It depends on who the ‘we’ is. I think people who are already engaged in conversations about consent should keep listening and asking themselves the tough questions when they get stuck. ‘Where do I feel the line drawn between myself and someone else? Where do I get violent? Where do I get rigid? Where do I objectify? Where do I steal someone’s agency?’ The better we know ourselves, the better we can know other people, too.”
Ted Bunch, co-founder of A Call To Men
When #MeToo was in full swing, a lot of people started talking about how we raise men. Do you think that’s important in the conversation about consent?
“Oh, yes. Huge. One of the questions we ask high school boys in our workshops is ‘Can you define consent.’ Only 19% of those boys could actually define consent. Eight out of 10 boys did not know what consent was, which explains a lot. It explains why girls and women between 16 and 24 have the highest risk of being sexually assaulted. Boys actually think ‘no’ means try harder. They think ‘no’ means get her drunk or that they’re not approaching it right and they have to change their approach. Boys are taught messages around conquering women and girls. They’re not even supposed to have an interest in women and girls unless it’s about sex. If a boy has girls who are friends, most of the time the men in his life are going to question why he’d spend time with a girl he didn’t want to date, because it’s against his paradigm. Just being friends with a woman is against this man box that we teach boys to be in, which stipulates that girls and women are sexual objects.
“Now, we have conversations with our boys all the time about going away to college, going out on dates, but most of the time it’s about wearing a condom. Not about boundaries. Not about respect. So yes, [how we raise boys] needs to be a big part of the solution.”
Do you think enough people are talking about including men into the consent conversation right now?
“I think the beauty of the #MeToo movement and this moment in time is that we all have had to look at how we impact other people. I don’t think there’s a man who exists who hasn’t done something, said something, or witnessed another man committing sexual harassment or some sort of discrimination. So what’s happening with men now is that we have to realize that, ‘Oh wow, being a good guy with the women in my life is not enough. I have to look at how else I’m impacting women and girls, and how can I do better.’”
Do you think intersectionality plays into these conversations?
“It certainly does. When we look at the intersections — race, class, gender identity, sexuality, and [so] on — we can’t address one without addressing the other. When we look at sexism, we also have to look at racism, and we have to look at class, and we have to look at heterosexual-ism, and how that plays out with homophobic messages and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming community members.
“We have this saying at A Call To Men that the liberation of men is directly tied to the liberation of women. We really believe that, because we know that as we increase and promote a healthy and respectful manhood, we decrease the presence of domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying, homophobia. It all would drop away.”
How long do you think it will take to change how people are seeing consent?
“I’m very encouraged because we’re developing the next generation of manhood right now. Historically, we’ve addressed this issue through intervention, right? Something has to happen to someone and then we respond to it. And now we’re working toward prevention, where it never happens in the first place. So that’s why these conversations are essential. And this is the first generation of men being held accountable for something men have always gotten away with.”
Bianca Laureano, Foundress of Women Of Color Sexual Health Network
What do you think is missing in the mainstream conversation about consent right now?
“People always put consent in a sexual scenario, which is great, because it needs to be there. But it also needs to be in every other aspect of our lives: when we go to the doctor, when we’re out in the world, when we’re at school, when we’re at home. Every human has the right to make decisions about what happens to their body, no matter if they’re having sex or having a breast exam. And a lot of people don’t always put those two concepts and realities into conversation with each other. So the consent conversations that we’re having are very one dimensional and only focus on sexuality. And the sexuality conversations we have are very narrow, and they really only focus on ‘Okay, how do you not be a rapist?’
“Consent is required in many different situations. Asking my sibling if they’re done in the bathroom before entering, for example, involves consent. It’s about communication and feeling comfortable enough to be direct and clear about what we need and want, and listening and respecting what others need and want.”
Some people say that we should be teaching bodily autonomy from birth. Do you agree with that?
“What’s important there is the rejection piece. If you hear no, why do we call it rejection instead of self-determination? We’ve given the person an option and they’ve made a choice for themselves that’s very concrete, so why aren’t we celebrating that?
Is there anything that you think needs to change in the culture at large before we can change the way people are thinking about consent?
“I think having a clear definition and understanding of accountability and responsibility, and how those two things are essential to being a member of a community, a part of your family, an employee, a citizen of the world, whatever. When I say that, I think of bystanders. We hear a lot about bystander interactions and responsibilities.
“I’ve been at a crowded airport, crying, hysterically heaving, and everybody just stared at me. Then, Joe Schmo from the end of the line walks up to me and says, ‘Do you need help?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he was like, ‘What do you need?’ And I said, ‘Here’s my airplane information. I need to change my flight. They just canceled it, and my mom just died.’ Meanwhile, everybody continues to stare. People don’t know how to act when they’re confronted with certain things, whether it be tears, violence, or even laughter and joy. And I think doing that hard work of learning understanding, responsibility, and accountability could make a huge difference.”
Are you seeing different conversations around consent happening in different identity groups? Are white women having a different conversation from women of color, for example?
“Oh, for sure, and there are definitely similarities, too. All of the communities that include people who identify as women or femmes talk about misogyny and how it impacts their lives every day. But the way that they talk about it and the examples that they use are very different. Black women might talk about when somebody calls them a ‘Black bitch,’ for example. And that being both racism and misogyny. White women might be complaining about being called a bitch, but they’re not being called a white bitch. So the conversations around consent and misogyny are very color-free in certain communities.
“And in communities of people where there are mixed financial backgrounds or that are more impoverished, conversations about consent are rooted in conversations of power. Going to work with people who have been harmed at their big Fortune 500 company, they’ve talked about power in a very covert way. So people talk about the same things, but they talk about it very differently.”
Do you think that those separate conversations need to start melding together in order to make any real change?
“Sometimes we do need to have isolated conversations that are free from the people who represent the groups that harm us. That can be essential to being able to understand and affirm that what you experienced really happened. Because if you’re the only Black woman and you had a confrontation with a white woman and everybody else was white and didn’t do anything, the feeling of rage is boundless. So, if you can’t talk about that with other Black people then you might think: ‘Am I making a big deal? What is happening?’ It becomes a form of gaslighting where the silence makes us question our existence in our reality.
“But the world that we live in requires us to interact and engage with other people. So we eventually have to have interracial, inter-ethnic, and all the other inter-conversations with different people, so that we can begin to understand what’s happening from others’ perspectives.”
What do you think needs to change about the mainstream consent conversation right now?
“When people say things like ‘enthusiastic consent,’ that drives me bananas. It’s ableist, and people can perform enthusiasm as a safety tactic. If I say to a young person, ‘I know you’re having a bad day, but I really need you to put on a happy face and act like you enjoy being here just for 20 minutes,’ my students know exactly what to do. They sit up straight. They raised their hand. They call me Miss Whatever. They know how to perform. And that’s a danger, I believe.
“Because then what happens to the neuro-diverse people who don’t perform enthusiasm the way we expect them to? If people have in their head that enthusiastic consent does not look like how I’m behaving, then I’m not going to get what I need. It’s difficult to find definitions that aren’t ableist, but I define consent as: Direct words, behaviors, and actions that show a voluntary agreement to engage with others. Someone who is consenting is comfortable and aware of their surroundings and options. They are not being coerced or manipulated and are not debilitated by drugs or alcohol.
“I would just love for us to get to a point where asking for what we want is so common and so comfortable that it’s not some big thing people are afraid of.”
When Mistress Velvet, a BDSM dominatrix in Chicago, spanks a client, she demands that they tell her how much it hurts on a scale from 1 to 10. “I have to be careful and not just ask them, ‘Do you like this?’ Because I need them to feel submissive to me,” she says. That means she’s continually asking clients for their consent to hit them and tie them up, which can be tricky when the whole point is that they feel submissive to her. “When I ask for a scale, I’m gauging where they’re at so I know how to play with them next time.”
Mistress Velvet calls covert questions of this sort “consent training,” because even though people seek her out to dominate them in a sexual manner, getting consent from her clients is paramount to everything that she does. People who don’t engage in BDSM may assume that consent isn’t a huge part of bondage and masochism. How much can you really care about what a person feels if you’re intentionally causing them pain, the thinking may go. But purposely inflicting pain is a delicate task, especially when struggles, shouts, yelps, and begging someone to stop are all part of the experience. That’s why dommes and their submissives establish safe words before a BDSM scene even gets started, and why consent is so vital to the work Mistress Velvet does. It ensures that both she and her clients have a safe and satisfying experience. The argument that asking for consent “ruins the mood” is infuriating to her. There’s never a reason to risk someone’s bodily autonomy, she says, and it’s 100% possible to ask for consent while keeping the sexy mood alive — in fact consent can heighten the erotic energy in both BDSM and non-BDSM exchanges in ways you might not expect.
Just because someone let you put your hands up their shirt, doesn’t mean that they want you to put your hands down their pants.
Mistress Velvet, BDSM Dominatrix
In both Mistress Velvet’s work and personal life, she’s a huge proponent of affirmative consent, the idea that you should be asking for a verbal “yes” at every step (from kissing to caressing to penetration) of intimate and sexual encounters. “Just because someone let you put your hands up their shirt, doesn’t mean that they want you to put your hands down their pants,” she tells Refinery29. “Just because my client is okay with me spanking them in some ways doesn’t mean they’re okay with me spanking them in other ways.”
Similar to sex, consent should be fun, even if you’re not into BDSM. Asking someone, “Can I kiss you?” isn’t a mood killer, it’s an important step for intimacy to continue in a way that confirms everyone is on the same page, comfortable, and safe. You can also get creative with how you say it by lowering your voice or throwing some sexy eyes your partner’s way. As long as you remain clear and give the person you’re being intimate with the space to object or say “no,” asking for consent shouldn’t be much different from other communication during intimacy.
You can use the same kind of language throughout a sexual experience — saying things such as, “I’m going to rip your clothes off now, okay?” or “What do you want me to do to you?” — so you don’t have to stop having sex in order to obtain ongoing consent.
“If I was having sex with someone for the first time, I wouldn’t want them to assume that I like to be choked,” Mistress Velvet says. “But there’s a way to ask when they’re pounding me and they’re like, ‘Do you like to be choked? And then I can be like, ‘Yes, choke me daddy.'” The same scenario works in the reverse if you want to offer consent. So, if you like to be choked, but aren’t sure that your partner will ask, then you can say, “Can you choke me?” during sex. Asking for what you want — whether it’s choking, oral, or a simple ass grab — won’t ruin the moment, it’ll make things even more steamy.
If I was having sex with someone for the first time, I wouldn’t want them to assume that I like to be choked.
Mistress Velvet, BDSM Dominatrix
Of course, you might feel as if you’re being thrown out of your sexy headspace at first if you or your partner aren’t accustomed to asking questions before, during and after sex. But practice makes perfect, and eventually you’ll not only get used to it, but also come to appreciate the benefits of getting exactly what you want, and being able to give someone else exactly what they want.
Mistress Velvet says that she struggled to make consent sexy at first, too. “Definitely at times [in my vanilla sex life], people would say, ‘Why are you asking me so many questions?’ and it would sometimes pause things,” she says. In those moments, she would explain that she has a history of sexual trauma, and so it’s important to her that her needs are being heard.
Maybe there’s no trauma in your past, but it’s still important to ask for and give consent regardless of your sexual history. When you’re first starting to have these conversations, you’re likely not going to be good at it. And there’s a chance that starting the consent convo will take you out of the mood, or that someone might no longer want to have sex with you because they feel that you’re making it too complicated. Those are moments to ask yourself: Is it more important to have sex or more important to learn how to stand up for my needs?
“If someone doesn’t make the space to have that kind of conversation with you, I would question if they’re a person that you feel safe with,” Mistress Velvet says. “A conscious and aware person would be like, ‘Yeah, this feels really awkward and I don’t have experience with this. Let’s just try it out.'”
Let’s start by defining each of these terms. Then, we can look at how these behaviors sometimes overlap.
The term that has been in the news most recently with reference to sports doctor Larry Nassar’s trial is sexual abuse, a form of mistreating children. Sexual abuse is mainly used to describe behavior toward children, not adults.
All 50 states have laws that recognize that children are not capable of giving informed consent to any sex act. In the United States, the age at which consent can be given ranges from 16 to 18 years.
Sexual abuse can include many different things, from touching a victim in a sexual manner to forcing a victim to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way to making a victim look at sexual body parts or watch sexual activity. Sexual abuse of a child is a criminal act.
In 2012, the FBI issued a revised definition of rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The revised law is gender neutral, meaning that anyone can be a victim.
When carefully examined, the FBI definition does not look like most people’s idea of rape – typically perpetrated by a stranger through force. The FBI definition says nothing about the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator and it says nothing about force. It does, however, say something about consent, or rather, the lack of it. Think about consent as your ability to make a decision about what happens to your body.
A perpetrator can compel a victim into a penetrative sex act in multiple ways. A perpetrator can ignore verbal resistance – like saying “no,” “stop” or “I don’t want to” – or overpower physical resistance by holding a person down so they cannot move. A person can penetrate a victim who is incapable of giving consent because he or she is drunk, unconscious, asleep, or mentally or physically incapacitated; or can threaten or use physical force or a weapon against a person. Essentially, these methods either ignore or remove the person’s ability to make an autonomous decision about what happens to their body. State laws vary in how they define removing or ignoring consent.
Perpetrators can’t defend against charges of rape by claiming they were drunk themselves or by saying they are married to the victim.
Rape and sexual assault have been used interchangeably in coverage of events leading to the #MeToo movement, and this practice, though unintentional, is confusing. In contrast to the specific criminal act of rape, the term sexual assault can describe a range of criminal acts that are sexual in nature, from unwanted touching and kissing, to rubbing, groping or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator in sexual ways. But sexual assault overlaps with rape because the term includes rape.
Social and behavioral scientists often use the term “sexual violence.” This term is far more broad than sexual assault. It include acts that are not codified in law as criminal but are harmful and traumatic. Sexual violence includes using false promises, insistent pressure, abusive comments or reputational threats to coerce sex acts. It can encompass noncontact acts like catcalls and whistles, which can make women feel objectified and victimized. It includes nonconsensual electronic sharing of explicit images, exposure of genitals and surreptitious viewing of others naked or during sex.
Sexual harassment is a much broader term than sexual assault, encompassing three categories of impermissible behavior.
One is sexual coercion – legally termed “quid pro quo harassment” – referring to implicit or explicit attempts to make work conditions contingent upon sexual cooperation. The classic “sleep with me or you’re fired” scenario is a perfect example of sexual coercion. It is the most stereotypical form of sexual harassment, but also the rarest.
A second, and more common, form of sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention: unwanted touching, hugging, stroking, kissing, relentless pressure for dates or sexual behavior. Note that romantic and sexual overtures come in many varieties at work, not all of them harassing. To constitute unlawful sexual harassment, the sexual advances must be unwelcome and unpleasant to the recipient. They must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to “create an abusive working environment,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unwanted sexual attention can include sexual assault and even rape. If an employer were to forcibly kiss and grope a receptionist without her consent, this would be an example of both unwanted sexual attention and sexual assault – both a civil offense and a crime.
Most sexual harassment, however, entails no sexual advance. This third and most common manifestation is gender harassment: conduct that disparages people based on gender, but implies no sexual interest. Gender harassment can include crude sexual terms and images, for example, degrading comments about bodies or sexual activities, graffiti calling women “cunts” or men “pussies.” More often than not, though, it is purely sexist, such as contemptuous remarks about women being ill-suited for leadership or men having no place in childcare. Such actions constitute “sexual” harassment because they are sex-based, not because they involve sexuality.
Come-ons, put-downs: They’re both bad
In lay terms, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention are come-ons, whereas gender harassment is a put-down. Still, they are all forms of sexual harassment and can all violate law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Historically, social attitudes towards all these hostile actions have assumed a continuum of severity. Sexist graffiti and insults are offensive, but no big deal, right? Verbal sexual overtures cannot be as bad as physical ones. And, if there was no penetration, it can’t have been all that bad.
These assumptions do not hold up to scientific scrutiny, however. For example, researchers at the University of Melbourne analyzed data from 73,877 working women. They found that experiences of gender harassment, sexist discrimination and the like are more corrosive to work and well-being, compared to encounters with unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.
We have tried to clarify terms that are now becoming household words. Of course, life is complicated. Abusive, assaulting or harassing behavior cannot always be neatly divided into one category or another – sometimes it belongs in more than one. Nevertheless, it is important to use terms in accurate ways to promote the public’s understanding.
Finally, we take heed that society is in a period like no other and one we thought we would never see. People are reflecting on, and talking about, and considering and reconsidering their experiences and their behavior. Definitions, criminal and otherwise, change with social standards. This time next year, we may be writing a new column.
[T]hanks to the #MeToo movement the topic of consent is now on the agenda. The conversation is centred on dating and hooking up, teaching us how to navigate those confusing moments between going home and actively saying, or hearing, the word “yes”. What isn’t being expressed is that consent is something that happens every time we agree to sleep with someone – whether on a first date, or after 30 years of marriage. At every point in a relationship someone has the right to say no, and to be listened to.
It’s frightening for many to think that partners we trust, love and may even desire might force us into something they’re enjoying, when we’re not, but it happens in too many relationships.
Many of the female survivors I’ve worked with have expressed, quite reluctantly, that having sex with their husbands felt like rape. They would be shocked when I told them that their experiences had, in fact, been rape. And these women aren’t an anomaly. One study reported that nearly one in three women has experienced sexual violence within an intimate relationship.
I can never forget when one woman I worked with asked me, embarrassed, how sex was for another married woman. She asked me if it was supposed to feel good. Or the woman who would go to extreme lengths to avoid sleeping with her husband, pretending to be sick or on her period. And another who would lock the door and sleep in the guest room when her husband would come staggering home from a night out. There are so many more stories like these.
As seen in the recent high-profile cases, women continue to face a higher standard of scrutiny for experiencing abuse than abusers do for inflicting it. “If it was so bad, why didn’t she just leave?” people ask me. There are many reasons why women don’t leave an abusive situation.
Psychological barriers can prevent recognition of abuse, women are socialised to fear the anger of men who don’t get their way, and, for many women, leaving simply isn’t an option as there’s nowhere to go. After all, in England alone, nearly 200 women and children are turned away from domestic violence refuges every single day.
Clearly, we’re going wrong somewhere. Men are socialised to feel ownership over women’s bodies, regardless of their pain or happiness. Women are conditioned to accept degrees of male aggression, and will often temper their response knowing that they risk being seriously hurt or even killed if they fail to comply.
If we’re serious about changing gender power dynamics for good, we need to take the NSPCC’s advice and teach children about consent from a young age. This begins with making PSHE education, including lessons on consent, taught by trained teachers, statutory in all schools.
Consent can’t begin and end with dates. Consent can’t be the absence of a “no”. It can’t be an extra. It can’t be a one-off check. Consent has to be affirmative and enthusiastic every single time, from the first time to the last time.
[I]n the sex education class for adults with intellectual disabilities, the material is not watered down. The dozen women and men in a large room full of windows and light in Casco, Maine, take on complex issues, such as how to break up or how you know you’re in an abusive relationship. And the most difficult of those issues is sexual assault.
Katy Park, the teacher, begins the class with a phrase they’ve memorized: “My body is my own,” Park starts as the rest join in, “and I get to decide what is right for me.”
People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than seven times that for people without disabilities. NPR asked the U.S. Department of Justice to use data it had collected, but had not published, to calculate that rate.
At a moment when Americans are talking about sexual assault and sexual harassment, a yearlong NPR investigation finds that people with intellectual disabilities are one of the most at-risk groups in America.
“This is really an epidemic and we’re not talking about it,” says Park, a social worker who runs arts and wellness programs for Momentum, an agency based in Maine that provides activities in the community and support services for adults with intellectual disabilities. Those high rates of abuse — which have been an open secret among people with intellectual disabilities, their families and people who work with them — are why Park started this class about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality.
Because one of the best ways to stop sexual assault is to give people with intellectual disabilities the ability to identify abuse and to know how to develop the healthy relationships they want.
“Let’s talk about the positive parts of being in a relationship,” Park says, holding a marker while standing at a whiteboard, at the start of the class. “Why do we want to be in a relationship?”
“For love,” says one man. “And sexual reaction.”
“Romance,” adds a woman.
“How about support?” asks Lynne, a woman who speaks with a hushed voice and sits near the front of the class.
“Having support, right?” Park says, writing the word on the board. “We all want support.”
From working with the men and women here, Park realized they want to have relationships, love and romance. They see their parents, siblings and their friends in relationships. They see people in relationships when they watch TV or go to the movies. They want the same things as anyone else.
But it’s harder for them. When they were in school, most of the adults in this room say, they didn’t get the sex ed classes other kids got. Now, just going on a date is difficult. They probably don’t drive or have cars. They rely on public transportation. They don’t have a lot of money. They live at home with their parents or in a group home, where there’s not a lot of privacy.
And then there’s the one thing that really complicates romance for people with intellectual disabilities: those high rates of sexual abuse.
“Oftentimes, it actually is among the only sexual experience they’ve had,” says Park. “When you don’t have other healthy sexual experiences, how do you sort through that? And then the shame, and the layers upon layers upon layers.”
This class, she says, is about “breaking the chain, being empowered to say, ‘No. This stops with me.’ “
“I Think People Take Advantage”
The women and men come to Momentum during the week for different programs. They go kayaking and biking; they go to the library and do volunteer work at the local food bank. There’s a range of disability here. You can look at some of the men and women — maybe someone with Down syndrome — and see they have a disability. Others, even after you talk to them, you might not figure out they have an intellectual disability.
Like one small woman with short, choppy dark hair, streaked red.
She’s 22 now, but when she was 18, her boyfriend was several years older. She says he was controlling. He didn’t let her have a cellphone or go see her friends.
“He was strangling me and stuff like that,” says the woman. (NPR is not using her name.) “And he was, the R-word — I hate to say it, but rape.” She says he raped her eight times, hit her and kicked her. “So I don’t know how I’m alive today, actually. He choked me where I blacked out.”
She thinks she was an easy target for him, because of her mild intellectual disability. “I think people take advantage,” she says. “They like to take advantage of disabilities. I have disabilities, not as bad as theirs. But I think they like to take advantage, which is wrong. I hate that.”
She says the class helped her better understand what she wanted, and had a right to, in a relationship. She’s got a kind and respectful boyfriend now.
Her friend Lynne listens and says she would like to find a boyfriend. But in her past, she has experienced repeated sexual abuse.
She talks about a time when she was 14 and “this older guy that knew us” forced her to have sex. She says she told people but no one believed her. The next year, when she was 15, she was sexually assaulted — this time by a boy at her school. “I was trying to scream,” she says, “but I couldn’t because he had his hand over my mouth, telling me not to say anything to anybody.”
Lynne, who is 38, says those rapes and others left her unable to develop relationships. “I couldn’t trust anyone,” she says. Lynne (NPR has agreed to identify her by her middle name) says this class has helped her realize she wants a real, romantic relationship and has taught her how to better find one.
“There’s A Lot Of Loneliness”
Katherine McLaughlin, a New Hampshire sex educator, developed the curriculum used by Momentum. She wrote it so that it uses concrete examples to describe things, to match the learning style of people with intellectual disabilities. It shows pictures and uses photographs.
McLaughlin says the main desire of adults with intellectual disabilities is to learn “how to meet people and start relationships. There’s a lot of loneliness.”
That loneliness leaves them vulnerable to getting into abusive relationships, she says, or to rape.
Sometimes, especially when they’re young, they can’t name what happened to them as a sexual assault. Because they didn’t get the education to identify it. “We don’t think of them as sexual beings. We don’t think of them as having sexual needs or desires,” McLaughlin says. “Often they’re thought of as children, even when they’re 50 years old.”
Sheryl White-Scott, a New York City internist who specializes in treating people with intellectual disabilities, estimates that at least half of her female patients are survivors of sexual assault. “In my clinical experience, it’s probably close to 50 percent, but it could be as high as 75 percent,” she says. “There’s a severe lacking in sexual education. Some people just don’t understand what is acceptable and what’s not.”
Most of the women and men at the class in Maine say they didn’t get sex ed classes, like other kids, when they were in school. Or if they did, it was the simplistic warnings, like the kind given to young children. “It’s easy to fall back on ‘good touch-bad touch’ sex ed,” says Michael Gill, the author of “Already Doing It: Intellectual Disability and Sexual Agency.” “That’s a lot of what they get.” And the usual warning about “stranger danger” can be unhelpful, because it’s not strangers but people they know and trust who are most likely to assault them.
Most rapes are committed by someone a victim knows. For women without disabilities, the person who assaults them is a stranger 24 percent of the time. NPR’s data from unpublished Justice Department numbers show the difference is stark for people with disabilities: The abuser is a stranger less than 14 percent of the time.
“Parents get this; professionals don’t,” says Nancy Nowell, a sexuality educator with a specialty in teaching people with developmental disabilities, an umbrella term that includes intellectual disability but also autism.
Parents have significant reason to worry: Figuring out what’s a healthy relationship is difficult for any young person, and it can be even trickier if a person has an intellectual disability. People with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to problems from rape to unwanted pregnancy. Some people with intellectual disabilities marry. A small number have children — and rely on family or others to support them as parents.
Still, says McLaughlin, parents often are reluctant to talk to their children with intellectual disabilities about sex. “Parents often feel, if I talk about it they will go and be sexual,” she says, and they fear that could make them targets for sexual assault.
But educators such as McLaughlin, Gill and Nowell argue the reverse: that comprehensive sexuality education is the best way to prevent sexual assault. “If people know what sexual assault is,” says Gill, an assistant professor of disability studies at Syracuse University, “they become empowered in what is sexuality and what they want in sexuality.”
Gill argues that a long history of prejudice and fear gets in the way. He notes early 20th century laws that required the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities. That came out of the eugenics movement, which put faith in IQ tests as proof of the genetic superiority of white, upper-class Americans.
People with intellectual disabilities were seen as a danger to that order. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote in a 1927 opinion that ruled the state of Virginia could forcibly sterilize a young woman deemed “feebleminded.”
Carrie Buck was the daughter of a woman who lived at a state institution for people with intellectual disabilities. And when Buck became pregnant — the result of a rape — she was committed to a state institution where she gave birth and was declared mentally incompetent to raise the child. Buck was then forcibly sterilized to prevent her from getting pregnant again. There was evidence that neither Buck, nor her daughter, Vivian, was, in fact, intellectually disabled. In the first half of the 20th century, impoverished women who had children outside marriage were often ruled by courts to be “feebleminded.”
There was another myth in popular culture that people with intellectual disabilities were violent and could not control their sexual urges. Think about that staple of high school literature classes, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The intellectually disabled Lennie can’t control himself when the ranch hand’s wife lets him stroke her hair. He becomes excited, holding her too tight, and accidentally strangles her.
The class in Maine aims to help these adults know what’s a healthy relationship and how to communicate how they feel about someone.
The main way this class differs from a traditional sex ed class is that — to help people with intellectual disabilities learn — the material is broken down and spread out over 10 sessions. Each class lasts for 2 1/2 hours. But the adults in the class are completely attentive for the entire session.
They do take a couple of very short breaks to get up and move around, including one break to dance. Everyone gets up when Park turns on the tape recorder and plays — just right for this group asking to be treated like adults — Aretha Franklin singing “Respect.” There is joyous dancing and shouts. And when the song is over, they go back to their seats and get back to work.
[T]here’s a wide range of sexual fantasies people have, ranging from entirely unrealistic to applicable to real life, sex with Superman through to banging on a plane.
But the fantasy of being raped, also known as nonconsent and forced sex fantasies, is common.
Sexual fantasies let you explore your sexuality, they’re what we use to get off in those harsh, cold wifi-free winters, and we get to use them in roleplay scenarios to make our sex lives even more fulfilling.
But this common fantasy is one that few of us feel comfortable sharing. It puts people on edge and makes us feel a bit wrong.
Recent research indicates that between 31% and 57% of women have fantasies in which they are forced into sex against their will. For 9% to 17% of those women, rape fantasies are their favourite or most frequent sexual fantasy.
It’s natural if that makes you feel alarmed.
In real-life contexts, rape – meaning sex against your will – is deeply traumatising. It’s not at all ‘sexy’. It’s an intense violation that causes high levels of distress.
Content warning: Those who find discussions of rape and sexual assault may find this article triggering.
It seems strange that we’d use rape as the basis for our sexual fantasies – and yet so many of us do.
And it’s incredibly important to note that while rape fantasies are common, this does not mean that women secretly want to be raped. There is a huge difference between acted out role-play, imagined scenarios, and real-life experiences. No one asks to be raped, no one deserves to be raped, and how common forced sex fantasies are in no way justifies unwanted sexual contact of any nature.
It’s difficult to know exactly what these fantasies entail, because, well, they’re going on in someone else’s mind.
But the women we spoke to mentioned that their fantasies of forced sex steered away from experiences that would be close to reality.
Rather than lines of consent being crossed by friends or bosses, we fantasise about high drama situations in which we are forced to have sex to survive, entering into sexual contracts rather than having our right to consent taken away from us outright.
Amy*, 26, says a common fantasy is being kidnapped and held hostage, then having one of the guards forcing her into sex to keep her safe.
Tasha, 24, fantasises about thieves breaking into her house and being so attracted to her they have to have sex with her against her will.
In both scenarios, the women said they start out by resisting advances, then begin to enjoy the sex midway through. It’s giving up the fight and giving in to desire that’s the turn on, rather than the very real trauma of real-life rape.
But for other women, fantasies are more true to life. For some it’s not about feigned struggle, but imagining consent and control being ripped away as a major turn on.
Why is this? Why are so many of us aroused by forced sex when we’d be horrified by the reality of it? Why do we find the idea of rejecting sex then doing it anyway a turn on?
Dr Michael Yates, clinical psychologist at the Havelock Clinic, explains that there are a few theories.
The first is that women’s fantasies of nonconsensual sex are down to lingering guilt and shame around female sexuality.
‘For centuries (and sadly still all too regularly today), young women are taught to hide sexual feelings or encouraged to fit narrow gender stereotypes of the acceptable ways that female sexuality can be expressed in society,’ Michael tells Metro.co.uk. ‘As a result sex and sexual feelings are often accompanied by anxiety, guilt or shame.
‘One theory is that rape fantasies allow women to reduce distress associated with sex, as they are not responsible for what occurs, therefore have less need to feel guilt or shame about acting upon their own sexual desires or feelings.’
Essentially, lingering feelings of shame around taking agency over our own sexual desires can make us want to transfer them on to another body, thus giving us permission to fantasise about sexual acts. In our minds, it’s not us doing it, it’s all the other person, meaning we don’t have to feel guilty or dirty.
This explains why most rape fantasies don’t tend to be extremely violent, and why the women I asked reported resisting at first before having an enjoyable experience (which real-life rape is definitely not).
‘More often than not, most people who have rape fantasies imagine a passionate scene with very little force, based around the “victim” being so desirable that the “rapist” cannot control themselves, while the victim generally does not feel the terror, confusion, rage and disgust of an actual rape,’ says Michael.
The second theory is down to the dominant narratives shown in media and porn. It’s suggested that because our media and porn so often show men being dominant and losing control around a meek, deeply attractive woman, that’s simply how we envision ideal sex in our fantasies.
Take a flip through classic erotic literature, or even just look at the covers, and you’ll be confronted by strong men grabbing weak, swooning women.
‘Although rarely do these novels portray rape or sexual assault explicitly, they do play into the idea of a female sexual role as succumbing to the dominant role of male sexuality,’ notes Michael. ‘One whereby men can act upon their sexual urges at the point they choose (with the female having little power to object).’
So that might be the why – but what about the who? Does having fantasies about being raped mean anything about us? Are certain types of women more likely to have fantasies of being raped?
As with most sexual fantasies, it’s really not something to panic about.
[I] recently realized that sex is unhealthy for me. Not sex in theory. No, of course not. Sex is healthy for our bodies and even our hearts and minds.When I say that sex is unhealthy for me, I mean the kind of sex that I have experienced — an experience that I share with many women, femmes, and bottoms. The sex where my needs are neglected and my boundaries are ignored in favor of whatever desires my partner may have.
Not everyone experiences sex and the things surrounding it in the same way, for various reasons. Some of those reasons might include gender cultivation, (a)sexuality, choice of sexual expression, knowledge of self/knowledge one’s own (a)sexuality, or relationship with one’s own body. Some of those reasons might include how certain body types are deemed “normal” and acceptable while others are only ever fetishized or demonized.
Some of those reasons might include the fact certain folks are told that they should be grateful that anyone would even be willing to look at them, let alone touch or love them, while others are expected to always be available for sexual contact. Some of those reasons might include the fact that some people are afforded certain permissions to make decisions about their sex and love life without being eternally scrutinized, while others are nearly always assumed to be sexually irresponsible.
Some of those reasons might include past or current trauma and abuse. And a host of other reasons not mentioned here, or reasons that you or I have never even considered because they’re not a factor in our personal story.
I’m not straight. I’m just an asexual with a libido—infrequent as it may be—and a preference for masculine aesthetic and certain genitalia. Most of the sex that I have had is what we would consider to be “straight” sex, and I am fairly certain that I would enjoy the act more and have a healthier relationship with it if more sexual partners were willing to make the experience comfortable and safe for me. Instead, men seem to want to make sex as uncomfortable and painful as possible for their partners, whether consciously or unconsciously, regardless of whether or not that is what we want.
Many men seem to judge their sexual partners abilities the same way that they gauge how much we love them and how deep our loyalty goes — by how much pain we can endure. I say this based on my personal experience, as well as the experiences of many of the people around me who have been gracious and trusting enough to share with me their testimony. Many of us have been conditioned to measure ourselves in the same way, using our ability to endure pain as a barometer for our worth.
Not only do we need to address the fact that far too many women have sex when they don’t want to because it’s “polite”, but we also need to talk about how many of us, of various genders, are having sex that is painful and/or uncomfortable in ways that we don’t want it to be, but we endure it for the sake of being polite, amiable, or agreeable. Many times, we also endure it for our safety.
This goes beyond simply not speaking up about what we want during sex. It’s also about us not being able to speak up about our boundaries and limits without fear of the situation turning violent. The truth is that many of us have quietly decided in our heads, “I would rather suffer through an uncomfortable/painful sexual situation than a violent one, or one that I might not survive.” This is about too many men not being able to tell the difference between a scripted pornographic situation or a story of sexual violence.
There have been too many times when I have been engaged in sexual situations and told my partner that I did not want a particular sexual act done to me, and they proceeded to do it anyway, with no regard for my boundaries, comfort, or safety. I gave them a valid reason for why I did not want the particular sexual act done to me, but I didn’t have to. My “No” should have been enough.
I once had to blatantly ask a guy if he understood what the word “No” meant. He had been attempting to persuade me into performing a sexual act that I was not interested in and had already declined several times. Therefore, it seemed a valid question.
“Yea, I do,” He responded. “It means keep going.” His answer did not stop there, but I will spare you the totality of the violent picture that he painted for me with his subsequent vulgarities. His voice was steady with a seriousness I dared not question. There was anger behind it, but also excitement and pride. The very thought of ignoring my “No” seemed to arouse him, even as he was filled frustration at my audacity to ask him such a question. I abruptly ended the phone call, grateful that this conversation had not been in-person. A chill came over me and I felt the urge to cry. My head and neck ran hot and the rise and fall of my chest quickened. Anxiety gripped me as I remembered that he knew where I lived and my panic drew out for weeks.
This is only one of my stories. I have others that include blatant disregard of boundaries, harassment, and other forms of sexual misconduct. I spent much of the last year contemplating the many ways that I have been coerced, manipulated, or even forced into sexual situations or sexual acts in the past, and how this violence is so normalized that we often don’t even recognize these abuses in the moment. Instead, they come back to fuck with us days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries after the fact.
It took me more than seven years to realize that the first guy I ever had sex with coerced me into it. Literally trapped me in his apartment and refused to take me home until I gave in. After this, he went on to violate my trust and disregard my sexual boundaries in other ways until I ended our “friendship.” It took me months to name the time a former partner admitted to having once removed the condom during our encounter without my knowledge or consent as a sexual violation.
Unfortunately, I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have stories like mine. And these stories belong to many people of other genders, or without gender, as well. This is our “normal,” and that is not okay. We need a broader understanding of what sexual violence and misconduct look like, and we need to deal with the fact that they are more a part of our everyday lives and common experiences than some of us are willing to admit.
We have to stop thinking of sexual violence and misconduct as something that only happens when someone is physically assaulted, drugged, or passed out. It’s far more than being groped by your boss, or terminated or otherwise punished for rejecting their advances. In a world where people do not feel safe saying “No,” not only to sex itself but also to certain sexual acts and types of sex, we cannot go on talking about sexual violence as if rape and harassment are the only true crimes. In doing this, we are leaving people behind.
The ways in which our bodies and boundaries can be violated are abundant. Too abundant. Fuck everyone who ever made another person feel like they couldn’t safely say “No.”
[A]mericans differ widely in their views of what constitutes sexual harassment, with age and race as well as gender throwing up the dividing lines, posing a challenge for those who police for such conduct in the workplace.
The issue has been thrown into the national spotlight as a string of prominent men in U.S. politics, entertainment and the media have been felled by allegations of sexual misconduct in recent months.
A Reuters/Ipsos national opinion poll, released on Wednesday, asked more than 3,000 American adults to consider eight different scenarios and then prompted them to decide if they would personally label each to be an example of sexual harassment. The variation in responses showed a need for employers to spell out expected standards, employment experts said.
While most adults in the Dec. 13-18 poll agreed that acts such as intentional groping or kissing “without your consent” amounted to sexual harassment, they disagreed over a number of other actions.
When asked about “unwanted compliments about your appearance,” for example, 38 percent of adults said this amounted to sexual harassment, while 47 percent said it did not.
Some 41 percent of adults said they thought it was sexual harassment when someone told you “dirty jokes” but 44 percent said it was not. And 44 percent of adults said that nonconsensual hugging was sexual harassment, while 40 percent said it was not.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws, says sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances as well as other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that affects an individual’s employment, interferes with their performance or creates an intimidating or hostile work environment.
But courts have disagreed on when individual actions cross the line into harassment. And many workplace sexual harassment cases are settled by employers before they ever reach a court, so there is not a constant judicial airing of standards.
TOUCHING AND HUGGING
Since people come to work with different ideas of what is appropriate, managers should train their employees and develop clear lines of conduct so that there are no misunderstandings, said Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School.
“The onus is on employers” to set the tone, Goldberg said. “Even if the co-workers don’t object or go to management to complain.”
In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, for example, 19 percent of men said that touching someone intentionally without their consent was not sexual harassment, compared with 11 percent of women. The poll did not specify exactly what was meant by non-consensual touching.
Fifty-two percent of people from racial minorities said that they considered non-consensual hugging to be sexual harassment, compared with 39 percent of whites.
While most adults said they thought that it was sexual harassment to send “pornographic pictures” to someone without their consent, younger people appeared to be more permissive.
Eighty-three percent of millennials, or those adults born after 1982, said it was sexual harassment, compared with 90 percent of gen-Xers (born 1965-1981) and 94 percent of baby boomers (born 1946-1964.)
Experts in sexual harassment law said it is understandable that women, especially women who are racial minorities, define sexual harassment differently than men, given that many have experienced it first-hand.
“Men do not cross the street to avoid people,” said Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who specializes in workplace equality. “Virtually all women do, whether or not they’ve been attacked before. It’s part of growing up in a group that’s been victimized for so long.”
Clear workplace standards would help everyone, including those who are accused of sexual harassment, said Minna Kotkin, director of the Brooklyn Law School Employment Law Clinic.
Kotkin, whose clinic provides legal help for people dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, said she recently advised a man who said he was fired because he misunderstood where the line had been set.
“He worked in retail, and this was a place where there was sexual banter going around,” Kotkin said. “And one day he made a comment about a co-worker’s breasts. And then later she claimed that he grabbed her by the waist.”
“He got fired, and he was really surprised,” she said. “He thought that conduct was part of their relationship … But the question is, maybe this woman tolerated this all along and then finally had enough?”
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States. It has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 2 percentage points for the entire sample. The credibility interval is higher for subsets based on gender, age and race, as the sample size is reduced.
[C]onversations about sexual violence and trauma have long been overdue but are finally happening. Conversations about how survivors of sexual violence endure and overcome their trauma is of equal importance — and with symptoms ranging from emotional to physical to psychological, physiological, and sexual, there are a host of repercussions. Experts estimate that one in six women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape; similarly, while the precise number is not known, professionals estimate that one in four women will be sexually abused before the age of 18. For many of these women, some of whom have been victimized as adults and children, the struggle to maintain or achieve a fulfilling relationship with their sexuality can be chronic and long-lasting.
While traditional kinds of talk therapy, such as psychoanalysis and cognitive-behavioral therapy, are often helpful in overcoming trauma, they are not always sufficient — particularly where sex and sexuality are concerned. Somatic therapy, which is a type of body-centered therapy that combines psychotherapy with various physical techniques, recognizes that trauma can be as much a part of the body as of the mind. “Somatic” comes from the Greek word soma, which means “body.” According to somatic therapy, trauma symptoms are the result of an unstable autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our past traumas disrupt the ANS and can manifest themselves in a wide variety of physical symptoms. This type of holistic approach can be especially useful for survivors of sexual violence.
Staci Haines, somatic teacher, practitioner, and author of Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma,agrees. In a 2007 interview with SF Gate, she said, “Many people can understand intellectually what happened to them, but put them in a stressful situation like having sex, and their bodies continue to respond as they did during the abuse. … That’s why somatic therapy is so powerful for recovery. Survivors learn to thaw out the trauma that is stored in their body. They learn to relax and experience physical pleasure, sexual pleasure.”
Most Americans’ understanding of tantra is limited to Sting’s now-infamous boast about his seven-hour lovemaking prowess — but tantra is actually a type of somatic therapy. As such, tantra can be used to help people achieve the same types of goals as traditional talk therapy does, such as better relationships, deeper intimacy, and a more authentic life. Furthermore, while tantra frequently incorporates sexuality into its focus, it’s not solely about sex — though that seems to be how it is most commonly perceived in the West.
Devi Ward, founder of the Institute of Authentic Tantra Education, uses the following definition of tantra for her work: “Tantra traditionally comes from India; it’s an ancient science that uses different techniques and practices to integrate mind, body, and spirit. It’s a spiritual practice whose ultimate goal is to help people fully realize their entitlement to full pleasure. We also use physical techniques to cultivate balance. The best way I have of describing it is it’s a form of yoga that includes sexuality.”
Internationally acclaimed tantra teacher Carla Tara tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “There are about 3,000 different definitions of tantra. One of them is this: Tantra is an interweaving of male and female energies, not just one or the other. I start there. Having both energies means knowing how to give and receive equally. Its basis is equanimity. It’s the foundation for conscious loving and living.”
Using equanimity as a starting point for individual or couples therapy can be useful in every facet of life, but particularly for survivors of sexual violence. “Tantra is important to any kind of healing,” says Tara, “because it teaches you to be present through breathing. Deep, conscious breathing is nourishing for every cell of your body. And they were not nourished when you were abused; they were damaged. This kind of breathing teaches you to be present. These breathing techniques help stop you from returning to the past. This makes it so powerful, and that feeling is so important for people who have been abused. Most people go first to psychotherapy, but for people who have survived sexual violence, it takes touching, not just talk, to heal.”
Yoga’s mental and physical health benefits are well established, making the addition of sexuality an even more promising tool for people struggling to have a more fulfilling sex life. “We use somatic healing,” Ward, who teaches individual and couples classes on-site in British Columbia and internationally, tells Yahoo Lifestyle via Skype. “When we’re traumatized, the body can become tense and tight where we have been injured. We refer to this as body armoring, because the body is storing the trauma in its cells. That kind of tight defensiveness can be impenetrable. But here’s the beautiful thing: When the nervous system is relaxed, it releases trauma. And that is a healing practice. We know that trauma gets stored in the body. Through combining meditation, sexual pleasure, and breathing practice, the body can then learn to let go and release that trauma. And that can look like tears, laughter, orgasms. It depends on the trauma and the person.”
Single or partnered, tantra can be beneficial for anyone looking to have a happier, healthier sex life. “The most promising sexual relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves,” says Ward. “If we don’t have that, how can we expect to show up for our partners? We all deserve to have a celebratory, delightful relationship with our body, but if we have unresolved trauma, we bring all that to our relationship. A lot of relationships we are in tend to be dysfunctional because of our unresolved trauma and wounding.”
When it comes to using tantra to heal from sexual trauma, reading alone won’t cut it. Expert assistance, most often offered in person and online, is recommended. “There [is help for] certain muscle tensions, and things like that, that you can’t get from a book,” says Tara. “You need a person to guide you.” Ward echoes this idea: “Especially if you’re healing trauma, it’s best to have a coach. Humans learn best through modeling. Reading is great, but nothing can substitute what we learn from follow-the-leader.”
Healing from sexual violence is a daunting task, and everyone who struggles to do so has their own personal journey to healing. Each person’s recovery is unique, and tantra can help every survivor. “The body is designed to heal itself,” says Ward. “We just have to learn how to relax and let it happen.”
[I]n the wake of the deluge of news about sexual harassment and alleged assaults by several high-profile and powerful men, it is important to look at the causes and consequences of forced sex in the workplace – but also in intimate relationships.
Although forced sex by a boss and by an intimate partner considerably differ, they have these two things in common: They both disempower women and make women sick.
Sex is a double-edged sword. It enhances our well-being and boosts our relationships if it is consented. It becomes detrimental, however, if it is forced.
My research on sexuality focuses on causes and consequences of forced sex in intimate relationships. My studies have been on individual and environmental risk factors that increase risk of sexual abuse by male partners. I have studied the co-occurence between sexual and nonsexual violence in intimate relations. Finally, I have also studied the consequences of sexual abuse on mental health and relationship quality among women.
The recent news events provide an opportunity to address forced partner sex, a long-overlooked but insidious practice.
All too common
Let’s look at the numbers.
According to one report, one in four women experiences sexual violence by an intimate partner. According to another report, up to 50 percent of all sexual coercions are done by intimate partners. Around one-third of adolescent girls also report that their first sexual experience was forced.
About 15 percent of women also experience sexual harassment at their workplace.
Worldwide, 30 to 35 percent of women in a relationship experience some form of violence by their intimate partner. In the United States alone, more than 12 million adults, mostly women, experience intimate partner violence each year.
A sickening effect at home
In addition to the moral and human right violations of individual women, intimate partner violence imposes huge costs to society. According to a CDC report, the costs of intimate partner violence, including rape, physical assault and stalking, in the United States exceed US$5.8 billion each year.
Sexual abuse has a number of health effects, including higher risk of suicide. Individuals who experience sexual assault are also at higher risk of several chronic diseases such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, chronic pain conditions and heart disease.
Individuals who are forced into sex by a partner show depression and high psychological distress. In fact, sexual abuse increases risk for almost all forms of psychopathologies.
Forced sex reduces women’s ability to enjoy sex in the future. Although some victims exhibit an increase in sexual activity, in most cases, forced sex is a risk factor for sexual avoidance.
Shame is a key aspect of the emotional suffering of those who experience sexual abuse. Shame is a core element of anxiety, depression and suicide, and is a barrier against help-seeking. As a result, victims typically continue to suffer in isolation. This is more so in societies where the rape victims are also blamed for their victimization.
My own research has shown a link between forced sex and relationship distress among married couples. By being forced to have sex, the women lose a sense of control of their bodies. Forced sex shakes women’s trust and attachment security.
Some believe that sexual violence is probably most depressing when it is committed by a spouse, partner or relative. When a woman is victimized by a stranger, she has to live with a frightening memory. When she is being forced into sex by a spouse or a partner, she lives with the “rapist” all the time.
A sickening effect at work
Sexual abuse can become chronic when it happens at the workplace. Given the imbalance in the power, fighting an assault in the workplace may be an uphill battle for women. Many powerful forces, such as human resources directors and lawyers, can serve to protect the company or to discredit and blame the victim.
Sexual harassment has a major effect on women’s careers. Some women leave their jobs to escape their harassing environment. Some people stay and fight. In both scenarios, sexual harassment causes career disruption for women.
Much of workplace harassment is a result of unbalanced power, and some scholars have called sexual harassment “gendered expression of power.”
This inappropriate expression of power imperils young, minority and poor women in the workplace in particular. Studies have shown that power differences can increase sexual abuse of young, minority and low socioeconomic individuals.
So who does force women into sex?
My research shows that sexual abuse does not occur in a vacuum. It tends to co-occur with relational dysfunctions as well as other types of violence. Women should consider psychological or verbal abuse by a partner, co-worker or boss to be a warning sign for future risk of sexual assault.
They should also know that men who show other types of violence, including verbal, psychological and physical violence, are more likely to commit sexual violence. Men who are very controlling verbally, economically and emotionally are also more likely to be sexual perpetrators.
And, it is important to know that alcohol and drug use contribute to sexual violence. Many men who force people into sex are intoxicated. Also, impulsive traits increase the risk. Men who express more anger and aggression are also at a higher risk of committing sexual violence.
Power plays a corrupting role
Social psychology research reminds us that power corrupts people, independent of their level of morality. So, when humans are given unconditional power, authority and dominance (over others), they are very likely to abuse it. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment showed that it is not evil people who do evil behaviors. Evil action is often about unconditional power and authority that people gain, rather than their immorality.
This may explain why the list of high-profile people who have been accused of sexually harassing women is mostly composed of powerful white men. This is not, I would argue, because white men are immoral, but because white men have the highest authority, dominance, social power and job control over their co-workers.
While the U.S. is undergoing a surge in awareness around workplace sexual harassment and abuse, people should also be mindful that the same dynamics are playing out among intimate relationships.