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Sexual Violence FAQs

What is sexual violence?
Who are victims of sexual violence?
Why is sexual violence so prevalent in our society?
What is rape?
What can faith communities do to raise awareness and support survivors?
What should I do if I am or have been a victim of sexual assault?
How do I know if I contribute to sexual violence?
What are some legal aspects of sexual assault?

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence refers to harmful behaviors that use sex or sexuality to control, intimidate or violate others. Behaviors can include harassing jokes and comments, inappropriate touching, rape, incest, assault, date rape, sexual exploitation, misconduct and abuse. Sexual violence occurs in public and private places: in homes, workplaces, schools and religious communities.

Sexual violence is not about sex-it is about violence that misuses sex and sexuality to exert power over others. The injuries may be psychological or physical, usually both.

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Who are victims of sexual violence?

Victims of sexual violence can be of any age, gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, economic status or faith tradition. Studies show that one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by age 18 (Russell, 1984). Adults with developmental disabilities are four to ten times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted (Sobsey, 1984).

About 10-14% of married women in the U.S. experience rape by their husbands (Finkelhor and Yllo, 1985; Russell, 1990), a form of domestic violence accounting for 25% of all rapes (Randall & Haskall, 1995; Resnick, Kilpatrick, Walsh, & Vernon, 1991).

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Why is sexual violence so prevalent in our society?

Studies showed that women were sexually assaulted 14 times more often than men, and of the sexual assaults reported to police, 67% were 17 years of age and younger (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999, 2000). Because women and children make up most of the sexual assault victims, we must look at the underlying beliefs within our cultures that contribute to this problem. We have witnessed a tremendous wave of social change improving conditions and establishing rights for women and children around the world. However, as we learn more about the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children in this society and many others, we know there is much more work to be done.

It is helpful to understand sexual violence in relation to attitudes about race, physical and mental ability, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, class, religion and age. Sexual violence is often used to harass or terrorize persons or groups who experience racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. For example, a U.S. government study revealed that American Indians were sexually assaulted more than any other racial group in the U.S. (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999). Nine out of 10 times, the perpetrator was non-Native. When we understand the past and present racial and economic oppression of American Indians in the U.S., we can see how this study reflects deeply ingrained patterns of violence against American Indians, rather than just isolated incidents.

Many societies do not extend civil and human rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. Because of underlying beliefs within a society that allow such violations of rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons may be targets of physical and sexual violence.

In other words, perpetrators of sexual violence tend to target the most vulnerable members of society.

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What is rape?

Rape is commonly understood to be an act in which one person forces another to engage in sexual intercourse. Although legal definitions vary from state to state, the most comprehensive definition refers to forced penetration by the penis or any object of the vagina, mouth or anus against the will of the victim, regardless of gender. However, because of the social inequities imposed due to gender, race, age and sexual orientation, the most common victims of rape are women and children of all races and ethnicities, as well as non-dominant men.

Rape can be categorized according to the relationship between the rapist and victim. Acquaintance rape, the most common, describes an assault against someone who is known to the assailant, usually friend, co-worker, neighbor, etc. Date rape specifically describes an assault against one's dating partner. Marital rape describes an assault against one's marriage partner or intimate. Stranger rape, the least common, occurs when a rapist attacks someone who is a stranger. (This would also include acts of rape carried out in wartime as acts of terror against a community.) Rape is an act done to a victim, against her/his will. Rape uses sex as a weapon to do injury to another person. The fact that the sexual contact is inflicted against the will of the person and causes injury to that person makes rape a violent act.

(A portion of this text is excerpted from Marie Fortune's book, Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited, 2005.)

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What can faith communities do to raise awareness and support survivors?

Our faith communities can provide information and awareness about sexual violence and can help survivors on the healing journey. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Designate a week or month (April is National Sexual Violence Prevention Month in the U.S.) to raise awareness about sexual violence through worship, adult and youth education, newsletters and special events.
  • Invite a guest speaker from a local sexual assault program.
  • Display information posters and other materials where meetings and worship take place.
  • Offer training for community leaders (especially clergy) on issues of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, including laws on mandatory reporting of suspected child sexual abuse.
  • Establish a congregational policy that has a clear statement about our understanding of and intolerance for sexual violence and procedures for reporting possible abuse.
  • Use educational curricula for all ages in classes and youth groups that teach how to identify and prevent sexual abuse.
  • Donate money and volunteer at local sexual assault programs.

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What should I do if I am or have been a victim of sexual assault?

If you are or have been a victim of sexual assault:

  • Remember that any sexual abuse you have experienced is not your fault.
  • Talk with someone you are comfortable with, such as a trusted religious leader, a friend or family member, who will keep your discussions confidential (except when required by law to report).
  • Contact a sexual assault program. Many programs offer confidential hotlines, therapy and advocacy to help survivors make informed choices after an assault. See the resources listed on the Links page.
  • If your intimate partner is sexually abusive, contact a domestic violence program to discuss options available to you, such as creating a safety plan. In the U.S., the toll-free National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 800-799-7233 (TDD: 800-787-3224).

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How do I know if I contribute to sexual violence?

You may be contributing to sexual violence if you:

  • Offend others by telling unwelcomed stories, comments or jokes about sex
  • Make unwanted sexual advances that others find harassing and you refuse to stop when someone says "no."
  • Have sexual relationships that take advantage of your status or position
  • Engage in any kind of sexual behavior with children or youth - such as teasing, touching or making them listen to or look at sexually explicit material
  • Believe that sex is your intimate partner's duty and coerce your partner into sex against her or his wishes

Find someone you trust to help you get the treatment you need to stop abusing others. There is help available. Whether you need education, therapy or sex offender treatment, if you think you need help, seek it. One resource is the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA), or call 503-643-1023.

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What are some legal aspects of sexual assault?

Legal definitions of rape and sexual assault vary by state and country. To learn the laws in your area, contact your local sexual assault program or law enforcement agency.

Encourage your faith community to learn the laws about the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, which vary by state. Report suspected child abuse of any kind, whether or not you are legally required to do so. Clergy have a moral and pastoral duty to report knowledge of child abuse to protect that child (and others) from possible harm.

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