3 Questions About Sexual Assault I Hear a LOT
Our contributing sex educator shares frequent questions about sexual assault, with answers for survivors, allies, everyone.
When I say that I get a lot of questions about sexual violence, consent, boundaries, and trauma, I mean…a lot.
I have a digital database of (most of) the questions I’ve been asked anonymously over the past few years, and it contains more than a thousand questions. About half of them touch on consent, sexual assault, trauma, and boundaries in some way. And those are just the questions I’ve been asked anonymously!
Those questions cover a huge range of topics — from “what counts as assault?” to “what about this scenario?” to “how can I support a friend?” to “should I tell my new partner?”
So today, we’re covering three of the questions about sexual violence that I get most often.
Before we dive into the questions, remember that it’s okay to read through this article slowly. It focuses on some heavy topics, and you might have a reaction while reading. So, pay attention to the moments when your brain is asking for some space — this will be here when you get back.
Q: “How do substances affect someone’s ability to give consent?”
When I look through my question archive, this is by far the most common one, especially amongst college students. There are many substances that can affect someone’s ability to give true consent — while alcohol, marijuana, and ecstasy/MDMA may jump to the top of your mind here, other substances can affect consent, too.
For example, if someone is sick and is taking a cough syrup/pain killer combination, they might not be able to fully assess their surroundings. Certain anxiety medications, like benzodiazepines, can affect your judgment and inhibitions.
These substances can do a few things:
- They can affect someone’s judgment
- They can reduce someone’s inhibitions
- They can impair motor skills
- They can reduce someone’s reaction time
- They can affect your bodily awareness
That combination means that consent — fully informed, ongoing, risk-aware, and mutually designed sexual boundaries and comfort zones — can’t happen. When under the influence, partners aren’t on equal playing fields. Even if both or all partners are using the same substance, they can affect people differently (two glasses of wine may sit fine for you, but may make your best friend solidly drunk).
To be clear: Drinking alcohol or using other drugs does not mean that you are consenting to any type of sex, and it doesn’t mean that you’re inviting sexual attention. In fact, many states’ sexual assault statutes specifically discuss “voluntary intoxication”.
And sometimes, perpetrators use substances (alcohol included) specifically to make their victims more vulnerable, make them doubt their recollection of events, or make them less likely to file a report. (Legally, this is called involuntary intoxication, and most states have laws covering these situations, too.)
Everyone will have their own personal boundary line when it comes to substances and sex. So, it’s important to talk about those things when you’re sober — before substance use or sex has begun. Here are some questions to ask your partner if you’re thinking about exploring substance use together:
- Have you used this substance before? How did it affect you?
- Have you ever had a bad experience with it? What did that look like?
- What are our safe words and gestures that we can use when we need a break or to stop?
- What types of physical contact are on the table for us? What is off the table (even if it’s usually on)?
If it’s your first time trying a substance, I don’t recommend also having sex — give yourself some time and space to see how that substance affects you and to see how you feel the next day. I also don’t recommend having sex with new partners when you’re under the influence, especially if you haven’t been able to talk about desires and boundaries with them while sober.
And if someone has violated your sexual boundaries while you were under the influence of a substance, know that it isn’t your fault, and you aren’t to blame. If you need support or to talk, you can reach out to RAINN’s online hotline or give them a call at 800-656-4673.
Q: “I have flashbacks to past abuse, even during consensual experiences. How can I stop having them?”
When we think about flashbacks, we often think about feeling psychologically transported back to a traumatic experience, actually seeing it in our mind and feeling like it’s happening all over again.
That is one type of flashback, but there’s another, too. The second type is more like muscle memory — certain types of touch, sensations, or sexual positions may invoke a strong emotional response, making us feel afraid or overwhelmed, even in an otherwise safe situation.
Both types of flashbacks can happen after trauma, but neither means that you’re broken.
Without fully nerding out on the psychology of this, in moments of flashback, your brain is observing a signal and then saying “Whoa! This might be like that other time! Activate protective mode!” And while it tries to protect you, it’s replaying the earlier experience — which, counterintuitively, can lead you to feel even more activated.
It is possible to interrupt this cycle, though! There are four basic steps to reducing the impact of flashbacks:
- Acknowledge what’s happening
- Identify what activates them
- Implement grounding strategies
- Process and acknowledge wins and challenges
First, acknowledge that the flashbacks are happening. And while telling your partner may be helpful, I mean acknowledge it to yourself. Trying to ignore or sprint past them without ever acknowledging them can lead your brain to feel even more agitated, which can actually make the flashbacks more intense.
So, in a moment of calm, tell yourself: “I’ve been experiencing flashbacks during sex. This doesn’t mean I’m broken, it just means that my brain is trying to keep me safe and that it’s still processing what happened to me.”
You may want to tell your partner this, too. You don’t have to dive into the specifics of what’s coming up for you during the flashback, and you don’t have to get into the details of your trauma if you don’t want to. Instead, you can keep it matter-of-fact: “I’ve been having flashbacks to a past traumatic experience when we _________. I’m still working on figuring out what the specific activator is, so in the meantime, can we _________ instead?”
Then, spend some time identifying what could be activating them. It could be particular types of touch, certain scents, certain sex acts — it varies from person to person.
Once you’ve identified what could be activating the flashbacks, you can come up with a plan to approach them. That might look like removing the activator from your environment, making an adjustment to defuse it, or seeing a therapist to process it (this is something that EMDR-practitioners focus on, BTW).
The third step is to implement some grounding techniques so that when you do start to get activated, you can bring yourself back to the present moment. Here are some simple techniques:
- Hold onto a cold glass of water and take small sips from it. Pay attention to how the cold feels against your skin.
- Bring your attention to your surroundings and name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
- Verbalize your surroundings and affirm your safety. (“I am in my bedroom. I am with my partner. The lights are dimmed. There is music playing and the song is _____. This is my blanket, and it’s fuzzy. I am safe here.”)
- Take deep, measured breaths. Breath in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, then breathe out for six seconds. Repeat, and feel your heart rate adjust.
- Move your body. Making a physical adjustment can sometimes be enough to dislodge a flashback, especially if it’s just starting to appear. That might mean getting out of bed, changing positions, or taking a walk around your bedroom or apartment.
- Doing basic math problems, like 2+2=4, 3×3=9, etc.
Grounding techniques help interrupt the anxiety-building thought spiral and bring you back into your mind and body, giving you the clarity to identify what’s going on in your mind and what you need moving forward.
The fourth step is to process what happened and acknowledge how you’re making progress (and where you’re still feeling stuck). It’s especially helpful to have a therapist to guide and support you here!
Remember, experiencing flashbacks doesn’t mean that you’re broken, and it doesn’t mean that you’ll always have them. Rebuilding a healthy, fun, and fulfilling sex life after sexual violence is possible.
If you’re struggling with flashbacks or other unpleasant side effects of sexual trauma, you don’t have to go through it alone! Reach out to a friend or professional for support, or even explore online support groups and forums to connect with other survivors.
Q: “Why don’t people file reports about sexual assault? Does that mean they’re faking it?”
If I’m out at a gathering and someone asks what I do for a living, we almost always end up at this question (once their surprise has worn off).
After all, why wouldn’t survivors come forward to file reports? On Law & Order SVU, it looks like the bad person always gets caught. That must line up with reality, right?
First, filing a report means going to go talk to someone about this scary thing that just happened to you. Most people might not even know how to file a legal report (or that you’re entitled to a victim advocate to support you throughout that process, free of charge). Even if someone does have an understanding of the reporting process, they might not be ready to talk to someone else about it. They may worry about judgment, other people finding out, or they may be worried about safety factors (like if they’re a sex worker, or undocumented).
Someone may also not want to file a report because they know the person who harmed them, and they fear for their safety – 20% of people who didn’t file reports said that they didn’t because they feared retaliation.
Here are some statistics that may surprise you:
- 31% of all sexual assaults are reported to police (College students are even less likely to report: Only 20% of women college students who experience sexual assault will file a report with police.)
- Only 5% of perpetrators will be arrested
- Only 2.8% of cases will actually lead to a felony conviction
- And only 2.5% of perpetrators will actually go to prison
Even if an arrest is made, it’s often up to a separate legal body (like the state attorney general) to decide if the state will move forward with criminal prosecution. That process can take a long time and for many survivors, it may just not feel worth it.
That doesn’t mean that they didn’t experience violence, though. Plus, these statistics just point to legal action.
A survivor might not file an official report, but they might still seek supportive services, like
- Getting a sexual assault forensic exam (a “rape kit”) done
- Taking prophylactic medications to prevent possible STIs, or taking emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy
- Talking to a therapist
- Joining a support group
- Seeking advocacy services from a local survivor support center
- Filing a Title IX report to their school (which is a process separate from the criminal justice system)
Coming forward to report sexual violence is a highly personal decision, and it’s one that not everyone feels ready to take or supported in. Plus, people from more marginalized communities may not feel safe taking an incident to law enforcement.
You can file a report about a sexual assault even years after it happened (while each state has a statute of limitations on prosecuting sexual assault, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still file a report for the legal record).
Internalized shame, a culture of victim-blaming, and pervasive myths about sexual violence can all lead survivors to not report — or even talk about — what has happened to them. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
What it does mean is that we can all do a better job of being supportive and nonjudgmental of the survivors in our lives, including those who we don’t personally know. We all have the ability to contribute to a world where survivors feel safe speaking up about their experiences, free from the judgment or condemnation of others.
Everyone’s recovery journey is different. The best thing we can do is to not make assumptions about what we would do if we were in someone else’s shoes and not force one “right path” onto survivors. In fact, one of the factors that is most important in a survivor’s healing process is having a sense of autonomy over themselves and how they choose to proceed!
Survivors’ stories are more complex and nuanced than a one-hour could ever communicate. So let your friends, family, and even maybe yourself be real people with real reactions — not two-dimensional characters on a screen.
Instead of falling back into judgment, take a moment to examine the root of your beliefs or snap judgments about sexual assault. Then, take the time to learn more about sexual violence. I know that you want to be a good, supportive friend to the survivors in your life – so take the time to learn more about this issue, process the discomfort, and move forward from there!
All in all, there’s no shame in not knowing something about sexual violence. If you’re looking to learn more, you can peruse the Nurx archive or visit RAINN.org — the information will be there when you’re ready!
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is a Contributing Educator for Nurx and an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
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