Spectrum of Assault: Why Inclusivity is Critical in Sexual Assault Prevention

On June 26, 2015 in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on gay marriage. Although this was a victory in the recent push for marriage equality specifically and GLBTQ rights more generally, much work remains to be done within the arena of gay rights. One area that is of particular concern is the alarmingly high rate of sexual assault within this population. To illustrate this fact, let’s start with the comparison point—data on assaults within the heterosexual population.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSVS). The data in the corresponding report, suggest that nearly 20% of all women experience a rape across their lifetime (defined as forcibly completed or attempted vaginal, oral, or anal penetration), 13% of women experience sexual coercion (unwanted sexual penetration after being verbally, but not physically, pressured to engage in sex) and nearly 30% experience unwanted sexual contact, such as kissing, fondling, or groping.  Among men, the corresponding figures are 1.4%, 6%, and 11.7%, respectively. These data draw much needed attention to the issue of sexual assault and they illustrate that assault is a social problem for both women and men. In this initial report, however, the effects of sexual orientation on assault rates were not considered. As a consequence, it falls short of offering a complete picture of sexual violence.

The CDC filled in this gap in 2013 when they released a report accounting for sexual orientation. Unfortunately, the data are alarming. The report notes that nearly half of lesbians and gay and bisexual men experience some form of sexual violence during their lives and that rate goes to 75% for bisexual women. In fact, being bisexual, whether a person is male or female, is associated with significantly higher risk of assault. In other words, sexual orientation matters, but it is not something that is often addressed in sexual assault protection programs.

Our program team shared the goal of making Elemental explicitly inclusive of the needs of sexual minorities from the beginning of our development process. We reviewed others’ research on assault among sexual minorities and, when we did not find all of the answers that we needed, we conducted our own to find out more about the processes and patterns in assaults in the LGB community. We augmented this information with additional input and stories shared firsthand by local members of this community. The resulting program both speaks to the unique realities of LGB experiences and underscores common themes that cut across lines of gender and sexual orientation. We are proud to say that everyone is welcome—and everyone’s experiences acknowledged and respected—at an Elemental seminar.

Although this inclusivity is extremely rare among sexual assault self-protection programs, a truly comprehensive approach to prevention would be impossible without it. Some social norm projects, such as the Red Flag Campaign, now include messages designed to build awareness and foster bystander intervention when signs of dating violence in a friend’s same-sex relationship arise. It is time for effective self-protection programming to become equally inclusive—and it is necessary, because assaults happen so often in private, and because cultural change will not happen overnight. We hope that our model will serve as a template for others as we work together to achieve a more equal, just, and fair world. Everyone deserves safety as they seek intimacy.

~The Directors



Response Flexibility as Empowerment

When we were at the beginning of our development process, an acquaintance told us that she was particularly glad to hear that one of our goals was to develop a means of self-protection that included effective but non-violent defense options. She told a story about a friend of hers who arrived at college and took a standard self-defense course. She trained hard and internalized what she was taught. Her responses became reflexive. Some time later, a friend of hers attempted to assault her, and she responded as she had trained. She thwarted the attack as she had been taught to do, and seriously injured the aggressor. However, contrary to expectations, the defender felt far from empowered. Her very sense of identity—as a loving, nonviolent person who took care of others—was shattered. She fell into a depression and did not leave her room for weeks.

An ideal success should not cause more harm than good, even if the response is justifiable by some set of legal criteria or is satisfying to others who hear the story. Perhaps, had we been in her shoes, we would have damaged the aggressor as well, and perhaps we would have been elated with the result. But we are not her, and we were not there. That experience was hers. She owns it. It was still the aggressor’s fault, and most of us would say that he probably got what he deserved. However, she still paid a price for the manner in which the situation was resolved—a resolution that was imagined in someone else’s head and fit their ideas of what was appropriate and right, and was subsequently taught to her.

A student in one of our early seminars later found us at another event and took us aside afterward to get our opinion and reassurance. She had encountered a situation at a party where a young man had her pinned against the wall in a room that was so crowded that she was unable to move in any direction. He started tugging downward at the waistband of her pants. She asked him to stop several times, but he persisted. Nobody was intervening. She asked what we would have done. Mechanically, she had several options available to her; we all agreed that a knee shot to a sensitive area and some harsh words would probably have worked. Her response to these more violent options was thus:

“Yeah, I know, but I had class with him the next day and I did not want to hurt him.”

She did not want to escalate the situation and bring additional, unneeded complexity into her life. The best option for her, on that day, with that person, and in that situation, was to call out specifically to another person in the room and ask that individual to come over, i.e., to actively engage a bystander and bring them in. That is what she had done, and the problematic young man had disengaged. That was the success that she needed, and the verbal training in Elemental had helped her to develop the flexibility to use the resources in her environment and to solve the problem in a way that was consistent with her own goals.

We humbly suggest that success cannot be defined by others’ definitions of what it looks like, and that it would be irresponsible to mandate that the people we train in our programs always deploy Response B when confronted with Stimulus A. We should not make those decisions for them. Action and outcome should not be the pawn in another’s political game or limited by an instructor’s restricted imagination of a problem and a uniform resolution. It must be judged by the criteria for success that are set by the actors themselves. Every encounter is different. True empowerment provides a toolbox of choices and encourages people to make their own, sound decisions about what to use and when it is most appropriate to do so. Empowering programs and the instructors that teach them will be sensitive to these needs and stock the toolbox accordingly. In Elemental, we encourage students to select, polish, and use the responses that are right for them.

~The Directors