What is Sexual Violence?
Sexual violence or sexual assault is any unwanted sexual attention, contact, or activity. Sexual violence violates a person’s trust, autonomy, and feeling of safety.
Sexual violence may involve one or more persons who coerce, manipulate, pressure, threaten, or force another person into acts of sexual activity that are against her or his will or without consent due to age, illness, physical or cognitive disability, being unconscious, or the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
Sexual violence is a term covering a wide range of unwanted sexual contacts and behaviors including sexual abuse, rape, attempted rape, incest, exhibitionism, voyeurism, obscene phone calls, fondling, and sexual harassment. Several terms such as sexual assault, rape, drug or alcohol facilitated sexual assault, and date rape have both legal and societal meanings.
Below you'll find information on the following related topics:
Terms and Definitions
What is the root cause of sexual violence?
What is rape culture?
Who are victims/survivors of sexual violence?
Who commits sexual violence?
What are the sexual violence laws in Massachusetts?
What can we do to stop sexual violence?
The member organizations of Jane Doe Inc. adopted a definition of sexual violence that incorporates a combination of societal and individual viewpoints of the issue.
Sexual violence is a multi-layered oppression that occurs at the societal and individual level and is connected to and influenced by other forms of oppression, in particular, sexism, racism, and heterosexism. On the societal level, it is the preponderance of attitudes, actions, social norms that perpetuate and sustain environments and behaviors that promote a cultural tolerance, acceptance, and denial of sexual assault and abuse. On an individual level, sexual violence is a wide range of sexual acts and behaviors that are unwanted, coerced, committed without consent, or forced either by physical means or through threats. Sexual violence is commonly motivated by a desire for power and control of the victim and is perpetrated through the use of sexual means. While often perpetrated by individuals against other individuals, sexual violence exists on a societal level through social norms that connect sexuality with violence and encourage the use of power to sexually control or dominate another individual. General environments, economics and industries too may exist and both benefit from and reinforce societal oppressions that support sexualized violence. Reproductive oppression, for example, whether forced pregnancies, forced abortions, or forced use of birth control also exist along this continuum of sexualized violence.
For more detailed definitions of terms related to sexual violence, see these sexual violence terms and definitions.
Sexual violence is never a victim’s fault.
Far too often the focus is placed on the victim. Deeply held misconceptions and myths about rape and other acts of sexual violence lead to blaming and not believing the victim. Not only does this shift the responsibility away from the offender but it can create a sense of shame and guilt for survivors, leaving them feeling alone, isolated, and unsure of where to turn for help after an attack.
It doesn’t matter what the victim was wearing, if either party was drunk, where it took place, how long they had been dating, if they had been sexually intimate before, or anything else. The responsibility for sexual violence lies solely with the perpetrator. The person who commits sexual violence has made a choice to do so and frequently targets an individual based on his or her vulnerability and/or likelihood to report or be believed.
Acts of sexual violence are not motivated by sexual desire and should not be confused with sex. Sexual violence is motivated by a desire for power and control over the victim whereby sex is used as a weapon to exert that power. Many times the sexual offender doesn’t use physical force with the victim. Instead, he or she takes advantage of the victim’s trust and his/her position of authority.
Sexual violence is a problem deeply rooted in our society precisely because it is the result of multi-layered oppressions that are interconnected with other forms of oppression, including sexism, racism, ageism, and heterosexism. Attitudes, actions, social norms, and behaviors promote a cultural tolerance, acceptance, and denial of sexual assault and abuse. Therefore, it is impossible to fully understand sexual violence by learning about the issue at the individual level. It is key to understand the roots of sexual violence on a societal and cultural level. The concept of Rape Culture is key to understanding the complex set of beliefs and societal norms that lead to sexual violence.
"Rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It occurs in a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm. In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.” Buchwald, E. et. al. (1993) Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
In order to stop sexual violence in our society, we must go to the very root of the problem and promote respect and equality in our relationships, our families, our institutions, and our societies. Jane Doe Inc. and our member programs are committed to breaking the silence and dispelling the myths that deny victims the right to safety, justice, and healing. Together, we can bring about change and create a new social norm of total intolerance of sexual violence, emphasizing prevention, healthy sexuality, and empowerment.
For more information about the concepts of rape culture and the complex societal factors, download this newsletter from the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.
Sexual violence victims are our friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. Individuals can be victims of sexual violence regardless of age, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, appearance, education, race, socio-economic background, or religion. Sexual violence can be perpetrated against a spouse (sometimes called ‘marital rape’ or intimate partner sexual violence), a client or patient, a teacher, a prisoner, or a member of someone’s congregation. It can occur within personal relationships and can be perpetrated as a hate-crime, as often happens in the expression of hate crimes against lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual communities.
Numerous studies demonstrate the prevalence of these crime here in Massachusetts and more generally in the U.S. Despite the high prevalence of sexual violence, it’s estimated that only about 16% of victims of sexual violence ever report to the police. One of the reasons for such low reporting rates is the incredible scrutiny that victims undergo when they come forward. Victims who are immigrants may also fear that their immigration status may be at risk or not know that state and federal laws are there to protect them. Many victims fear retaliation and continued violence from the person who assaulted them.
The many fears that contribute to decisions not to report may also influence a victim’s choice to recant a report of sexual assault. In some cases, a victim may withhold certain information for fear of getting in trouble or not being believed. In other cases the trauma of a sexual assault can impact a victim’s memory, making it difficult to reconstruct the details of the assault. These inconsistencies need to be understood as the potential outcome of trauma and fear and not as proof either that the sexual assault didn’t occur or that the victim intended to falsely report. For these and other reasons, if a case cannot be proven or prosecuted and is classified as unfounded in court, that doesn’t mean that it was a false report. Time after time, studies have shown that false reports of sexual assault or rape are no more prevalent than false reports of any other crimes.
One of the biggest misconceptions about this issue is who commits sexual violence. Many people have an image of a sexual violence perpetrator as a male stranger. This incomplete picture can put victims in jeopardy and undermine law enforcement response and community prevention efforts. The reality is that while it’s more common for men to commit sexual violence against women, anyone can be a perpetrator regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, appearance, education, race, socioeconomic background, or religion. Another reality is that most sexual assaults (70 – 80%) are perpetrated by someone known to the victim and not a stranger.
According to the 2005 Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Study someone known to the victim committed 73% of reported sexual assaults. Of these, 38% were friends or acquaintances, 28% were intimate partners, and 7% were relatives. As frightening and unacceptable as they are, assaults by strangers are only a small percentage of sexual violence incidents.
Ironically, because it’s more likely for someone to report a rape by a stranger, there will be a disproportionate number of these cases that find their way into the criminal justice system. However, Dr. David Lisak’s ground-breaking research found that whether a rapist was incarcerated or not, their behaviors, motivations, and attitudes were very similar. Both groups had similarly high levels of anger at women, a need to dominate women, hypermasculinity, lack of empathy, and psychopathy and antisocial traits.
Perpetrators will often offend against those who are more vulnerable and therefore less able or likely to report an offense. Vulnerable populations may include those who are very young, elderly, or mentally or physically disabled. Age did not prevent an offender from perpetrating a sexual act on an elder. Age of offenders of these elder victims ranged from 13 to 90 years. (Burgess Ann W. “Elderly Victims of Sexual Abuse and Their Offenders,” 2006.)
The connection between sexual violence and stalking and/or domestic violence is also clear. Offenders of sexual violence often engage in stalking behaviors. In Massachusetts, sexual violence and rape is a crime even if the couple is married or in a relationship. This law applies to everyone, including immigrants and refugees from other countries. Recognizing these connections increases opportunity for intervention, resources for victims, and offender accountability.
JDI has prepared this document outlining the domestic violence and stalking as well as rape and sexual assault related laws in Massachusetts. It's best to talk to an advocate or attorney if you have specific questions about how these laws apply to your situation.
Because sexual and domestic violence is a complex problem, with roots at the societal and individual levels, prevention of sexual domestic violence required an interconnected and complex approach. At JDI we believe that everyone, regardless of their life circumstances can make a difference.
As an individual, you can learn as much as you can about the issue and commit yourself to speaking up when you hear people express attitudes that might promote or minimize sexual and domestic violence.
You can also join efforts with other member or your family, your neighborhood, or local organizations to help raise awareness and educate others.
You can consider bringing these issues to the forefront at your workplace, at your kids’ school, through your local media outlets and social media.
You can also collaborate with local, statewide, and national organizations to help change laws and push for system and societal change.
If you would like to check out ways that you can be involved, get in touch with JDI or with your local sexual and domestic violence program.
To learn more about these issues, check out these resources: