One in four women and one in six men in America will experience an attempted or completed sexual assault in their lifetime. There are more than 2 billion rape survivors worldwide. Despite these staggering numbers, sexual assault remains one of the most underreported, invisible crimes. The silence that surrounds sexual assault stems from a lack of understanding of sexuality in our culture and in our lives.
All humans are sexual beings, yet our culture makes it difficult to talk about sex beyond contraceptives and STIs (sexually transmitted infections). This lack of knowledge and communication about healthy sexuality is detrimental both to survivors of sexual assault and to our young people who receive mixed messages about sexuality, violence and self-esteem. We are taught from a young age that certain stereotypes are sexy, which makes up our relationship with our unique human selves. You may not look like an airbrushed supermodel or a hyper-masculine football player, but you are a human being with a body more interesting than the images the media has projected onto us. By critically analyzing media and talking about the messages that are being sent, we can become more aware of the impact that culture has on our sexuality and our relationships.
Within media, the images we are exposed to blend sexuality and violence indiscriminately. The normalization of sexual violence and the taboo against talking about sexuality creates a paradigm where sex offenders are able to operate with ease: targeting victims, using alcohol to lower inhibitions, creating an environment where someone feels isolated from their supports because they find it shameful to talk about what they have experienced or where they feel guilty for the actions of the perpetrator. To help counter this culture that enables rapists, we need to learn to recognize and talk about healthy sexuality, consent and equitable relationships as a means to prevent future violence and begin to heal past traumas.
Healthy sexuality is defined by the World Health Organization as:
1) a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity; and 2) a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination or violence.
There is more to healthy sexuality than having a healthy relationship with a monogamous partner. It is having a healthy relationship with yourself and your body.
People who understand healthy sexuality and consent are better able to understand their own worth, set their own boundaries and intervene as a bystander when witnessing sexually violent behavior.
By not talking about sexuality, we allow the darkness of ignorance to cloud our relationship to ourselves and to others.
If we cannot discuss our limits, how can we know where to set boundaries? If we are bound by stereotypes, how can we explore our genuine selves? Talking about healthy sexuality opens an avenue of self-expression where the medium is your own body and soul and the utensils are honor and respect.
So, let us shed light on the places in our culture that empower us as sexual beings; by modeling self-esteem, by encouraging curiosity and by talking about healthy sexuality.
Open and honest communication with family and peers enables others to know that you are a safe person to talk to if there is need, while maintaining an open mind around cultural differences that allows acceptance and understanding to infiltrate our limited worldviews.
When we are more comfortable talking about sexuality, we can be more open to hear the story when others tell us they have experienced sexual violence, help validate their experience and help them understand that they were the victim of a heinous crime and that there are supports available to help them heal. These are all things that help us heal and grow within ourselves, so like a ripple on water, the healing will spread throughout our community.
Healing from sexual violence is no small task. There are about 2 billion people doing so right now; our sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, children all healing. It takes tremendous courage to break the silence around this taboo crime.
If others come to you and tells you that they have been victimized, do you have the courage to listen and believe them? To help them understand that this does happen in our community and let them know that it is not their fault? Can you empower them to make choices in their healing process? Do you know where to turn for additional resources and support? If we all break this silence together, we can create a world where hope and healing are possible.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center has decided to promote healthy sexuality as a means to ending sexual assault.
If you would like more information, please visit www.durangosaso.org, www.nsvrc.org or call Sexual Assault Services Organization at 259-3074.
Alison Hiam is advocacy services coordinator at SASO. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Cantrell is community education coordinator at SASO. Reach her at email@example.com.