What Makes Sexual Assault so Hard to Label?

Please note: this article contains frank language about sexual assault which may be triggering to some readers.

In my therapy office one of the most common questions I get asked directly or subtly is if I consider a client’s experience of sexual assault as sexual assault. The bolder clients will ask directly though usually with a doubtful tone as if already preparing for me to be dismissive.

Most will look down or away and say something like, “I wasn’t sexually assaulted but” and then continue on to describe an experience of being sexually assaulted.

I’ve noticed this pattern for a few years now and have been especially curious about it as it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier for people to label sexual assault. This is despite the increased media coverage with people like Cosby, Kavanaugh, Trump, etc.

So I’ve done some thoughts on what the heck is happening and this is what I have come up with so far. But first…

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact by another.

Sexual assault can be thought of as an umbrella term and rape would be a more specific act of penetration. I only find this distinction meaningful in that I think some of my clients who are saying “I wasn’t sexually assaulted” mean they weren’t raped. There may even be some black and white thinking here that if I wasn’t raped it wasn’t a [insert an invalidating thought here like “a big deal”].

But as a trauma therapist and EMDR practitioner I can tell you our bodies and brains don’t make these same kind of distinctions. Being hurt is being hurt whether physically, psychically, emotionally, or spiritually.

Why does it matter if we call it sexual assault?

Sometimes being able to label our experiences helps us to demystify them – like the idea of “name it to tame it”.

If you’re feeling anxious, irritable, jumpy, numb, like there is something really wrong with you it can be incredibly validating to put a name to what’s happening: an appropriate traumatic response or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But in order to identify with having a traumatic response one must first believe they have experienced something that would be considered a trauma (like sexual assault).

So if a person’s mind is minimizing, denying or blocking out a sexual assault (or society is doing that to you) then you’re more likely to go with the “there’s really something wrong with me” explanation rather than “I’m having an appropriate response to something terrible that happened to me”.

If there’s something wrong with you, you might seek out treatment but it might not be the right kind. Treating trauma is very different from say depression or generalized anxiety disorder. So if you are able to identify that you are having a traumatic response or PTSD you can reach out for help specifically to someone who treats trauma versus a generalist who might try to “CBT” you out of your symptoms (spoiler alert: this approach just doesn’t work as well as trauma treatments like EMDR and can wind up feeling deeply invalidating).

So what makes it confusing for us?

Stranger in the bushes

In the United States (and maybe elsewhere?) we have a narrative around what rape is. Our vision is of a young, white, cis-woman being attacked by a man who was waiting for her behind the bushes. This is teaching us several things:

  • rape happens to young, white, cis-women
  • it is perpetrated by men
  • it is perpetrated by strangers
  • rape happens when we are walking alone

So anything that doesn’t fall into this narrowly defined scenario must not be rape, right? Of course we know this is bullsh*t but it doesn’t necessarily stop us from believing it.

“Submitting” or freezing

Many people have heard of the “fight/flight” response to trauma however there is actually a much broader range of traumatic reactions. One of these common reactions is to “submit” which is a clever way for our brains to protect us from pain. It might make more sense in a situation to go along with a perpetrator than to fight or run away and risk making them angry.

Another common reaction is to freeze – picture a deer in headlights. When we freeze it’s our body getting stuck between wanting to act and yet being unable to because of extreme fear.

Both of these reactions are not conscious decisions we make but rather our brain making a snap judgment about how to proceed in the face of a scary situation.

Blaming self

Self-blame includes such a large percentage of assault survivors that it’s worthy of it’s own article (coming soon!). But some highlights here include thoughts like “I didn’t scream, ‘no!’, or try to fight them off so it must not be an assault”, “the perpetrator isn’t a bad person so maybe it’s my fault then”, or “I put myself in a risky situation”.

Society blaming you

This is enraging but shockingly common – the “look at what you were wearing, how you were acting” grossness. Or “boys will be boys” dismissiveness that can make a victim feel less than human.

The perpetrator isn’t a bad person

This is by far I think the most complicated issue for many people to deal with. Remember when I said it was important to keep in mind that sexual assault is subjective? Well that really comes into play here.

This is so important that I am going to say it twice:

It is possible for a perpetrator to not have intended to sexually assault you, to be unaware the contact was not consensual, to love and care about you, to be a “good” person just as much as the opposite of these is true.

It is possible for a perpetrator to not have intended to sexually assault you, to be unaware the contact was not consensual, to love and care about you, to be a “good” person just as much as the opposite of these is true.

Sexual assault is subjective – it’s YOUR perception that matters in whether you develop traumatic responses to what happened. These things might matter legally but they don’t matter to our brains.

Think about it like this: if you are walking down the sidewalk and you are hit by a cyclist, will it hurt less or cause less damage if the cyclist accidentally hit you vs intended to hit you? No. Though you may be psychically a little more upset if the act was intentional, you will still be hurt, injured and need follow up care because you were hit by a bike regardless of the cyclist’s intent.

Drugs or alcohol

If you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol you might feel confused about what really happened. Sometimes people genuinely don’t remember what happened but will notice over time some symptoms of PTSD popping up (avoiding sex with trusted partners, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, etc)

This is of course not an exhaustive list but merely a start at teasing out some of the issues that can lead to victims and survivors invalidating their own experiences or society invalidating them.

My hope is as we begin to talk more openly about sexual assault we will take a more nuanced approach than the “stranger in the bushes” or evil perp theories. Not because I want strangers in the bush or perps to get off easy, but because it doesn’t do survivors of assault any justice when we narrowly and inappropriately define who victims are, who perps are, and the context within which assault can occur.

If you are a victim or survivor of sexual assault please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or counselinginboston.com to learn more about treatment options and resources in your area.