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#MeToo: The Psychology of Sexual Assault

#MeToo: The Psychology of Sexual Assault

As more and more men in powerful positions find themselves suddenly out of a job because of the women who’ve bravely come forward to share their traumatic experiences in public, it’s easy to forget how much of an ongoing, serious problem sexual assault is today. Many men (and even some women) brush off such accusations or behaviors with trite but insulting excuses, such as, “Boys will be boys.”

Sexual assault is a serious and devastating violent criminal behavior. It often leaves a traumatic scar on the victim that no amount of time heals or lets the victim forget. It is time our culture stopped making excuses for these dishonorable (mostly male) criminals.

Sexual assault (and its twin, sexual abuse) is not about the act of sex to the abuser.

Rather it is about the power differential between the abuser and the victim. Most of these crimes are committed by men toward women, and most people know their abuser. Sexual assault usually refers to the behavior when it is of short-duration or infrequent, but for the victim of such crimes, such distinctions don’t matter much.

Sexual assault in the United States is sadly common.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women have reported being raped at one point in their lives (and one in 71 men). On college campuses, that number rises to one in four women (and one in seven men). Over 92 percent of the time, it is either by their intimate partner, or by an acquaintance. About 91 percent of victims of rape and sexual assault and rape are women, while nine percent are men.

Sexual violence is even more common.

One in three women have reported an incident of sexual assault in their lifetime, as well as one in six men. Few victims report these crimes to the police. According to one popular model about sexual violence, “men with a strong impersonal sex orientation (i.e., greater engagement in sexual activities with more casual sexual partners) are at increased risk of perpetrating sexual violence” (Davis et al., 2018).

Sexual abuse can take many forms, but it always includes a component of unwanted sexual activity forced on the victim. That activity can, and most often does, involve direct contact with the victim, but may also be forcing the victim to watch the perpetrator engage in a sexual activity on their own, or inappropriately show their genitals. Perpetrators of sexual abuse think nothing of making threats to get what they want, using force, or taking advantage of a victim’s role (such as an employee).

Perpetrators of sexual abuse take pleasure in inflicting their will onto the victim, as well as the victim’s powerlessness. Some sexual abusers use alcohol or drugs to ensure a compliant, intoxicated victim. Using drugs and alcohol seems to reduce the likelihood of the victim reporting the crime to the police, as the victim will often blame herself or himself for taking the drugs or alcohol (although the administration of drugs is often non-consensual).

Many powerful, prominent men who engage in sexual assault believe they are owed the right to both verbally harass and sexually abuse whomever they want, whenever they want. They believe their position of power — whether it comes through wealth, family background, work role, politics, or corporate leadership — negates ordinary cultural and societal norms. “I’m owed this, and you can’t do anything about it — who would believe you over me?” is a common refrain for these men.

Trauma Can Be Lifelong, Relentless

Criminal sexual assault behavior by a perpetrator onto their victim usually results in the victim dealing with the aftermath of the trauma throughout their life. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 81 percent of women (and 35 percent of men) will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, major depressive disorder, or some other disorder due to the assault.

“Survivors of sexual assault appear to be at substantially increased risk for suicidal ideation and attempts; indeed, relative to other conditions, sexual assault was associated with the highest increases in risk for suicidality” (Dworkin et al., 2017). These same researchers, in a comprehensive analysis of the sexual assault research literature, also found that victims are at increased risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and bipolar disorder.

Perpetrators rarely think of, much less care, about the impact of their behavior on their victim. When they do think about it, it is almost always in the context of believing the victim only has themselves to blame for putting themselves into a situation with the perpetrator.

Psychotherapy can often help a victim of sexual assault.

The healing process is usually lengthy, as many victims blame themselves (as society too often does as well) for somehow helping to bring on the sexual assault. Nobody would ever want such a thing to happen to their best friend, much less themselves, but this kind of cognitive distortion is common among victims. Time also helps to heal the pain caused by sexual assault, but in most people, time is usually not enough on its own.

Why don’t most sexual assault victims report the crime to the police?

Because victims often feel like they are victimized a second time by having to go through the details of the incident (often more than once) with law enforcement officers. Most of these folks are well-meaning, but not all of them are properly trained on how to handle sexual assault reports, and how to do so in a compassionate and empathetic manner.

Nearly every such law enforcement contact will include questions that suggest the victim might be partially to blame, such as, “What were you wearing at the time of the assault?” and “Did you have anything to drink?”1

Society’s Role in Perpetrating Sexual Assault

Society needs to stop re-victimizing the victims of sexual assault (“What were you wearing?” “Did you drink too much?” “Did you resist?” “Are you sure he knew you didn’t want to?”) and focus its efforts on teaching perpetrators of this crime that people’s boundaries and rights must be respected at all times.

Lack of consent during sexual activity is not consent.

Just because a person is in a position of power over another person doesn’t give them the right to act out their violent behaviors. Society and family members need to stop making excuses for perpetrators behaving badly (“Oh, that’s just locker-room talk” or “They were only 18, what do they know?”), and start enforcing the idea that honor and respect carry far more weight and value. Women are not there to be subjugated or victimized.

Get Help & Helping Others

If you’re a victim of sexual assault, there are many resources available to you. The first and best place to start is at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Their “Find Help” resource page offers a directory of resources for your area, including victim support organizations that can be of further help.

The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, organizes the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline, a referral service that can put you in contact with your local rape crisis center. You can call the Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or access its online chat service.

If you’re a perpetrator of sexual assault, you need to get help immediately. This dysfunctional behavior has likely caused significant harm to one or more people in your life — harm that will likely never go away completely for them. There are many psychologists and other therapists who specialize in helping perpetrators of sexual assault. Reaching out to one today is a proactive sign of strength.

If someone shares with you that they’ve been a victim of a sexual assault, please listen to them without judgment. Be an active listener and offer them unreserved emotional support. Help them figure out what kind of assistance they want and need, and then, if they need it, offer to help them with accessing those resources. Do not ask questions about the assault unless they indicate that they’d like to talk about it. Encourage them to get help — but don’t nag them or suggest there’s only one “right” way to react to the assault.

Remember that, if you’re a victim, help is available. And if you’re a victim of sexual assault, please know that it is not your fault. Professionals and your friends will believe you, even if your own family or certain people in your life don’t.

Please, reach out and get help today.

 

References

Dworkin, ER, Menon, SV, Bystrynski, J, Allen, NE. (2017). Sexual assault victimization and psychopathology: A review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 56, 65-81.

Davis, KC, Neilson, EC, Wegner, R, Danube, CL. (2018). The intersection of men’s sexual violence perpetration and sexual risk behavior: A literature review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 40, 83-90.

#MeToo: The Psychology of Sexual Assault

Footnotes:

  1. These are insulting, dumb questions. Do police ever ask victims of a mugging, “Well, did you wave your wallet or purse around in public?” and “How much did you have to drink?” Of course, not. It’s a ridiculous double-standard that is one of the reasons victims don’t want to go to the police. []

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder & CEO of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues -- as well as the intersection of technology and human behavior -- since 1992. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member and treasurer of the Society for Participatory Medicine. He writes regularly and extensively on mental health concerns, the intersection of technology and psychology, and advocating for greater acceptance of the importance and value of mental health in today's society. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.


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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). #MeToo: The Psychology of Sexual Assault. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 21, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/metoo-the-psychology-of-sexual-assault/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Sep 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Sep 2018
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