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Sexual assault or rape can be defined as one person forcing another person to have sex, or perform sexual acts, through coercion, manipulation, threats, physical restraint, or physical violence. It also includes touching or grabbing intimate body parts for sexual gratification. Sexual assault is not just a crime of sex. Rather, it is a crime of power and control where sexual activity or contact is used to dominate and hurt the victim. While it can happen to anyone of any gender, ethnicity, or economic status, the overwhelming majority of survivors are women.
For adolescents and young adults, sexual assault is most likely to occur on a date or while in a social setting. This is not surprising given the confusing messages teens receive about relationships. Males are socialized to equate success with sexual conquests, while females learn to equate success with physical attributes and compliance to males. This combination feeds the misconceptions that “no really means yes,” “no means try harder,” or that buying dinner means buying sex. It also helps to explain why it is very difficult for males and females to define forced sexual contact as rape.
Teen survivors are often hesitant to talk to anyone about the assault for a variety of reasons. They may not identify the act as sexual assault, they may not want the rapist to get in trouble, they may think it was “normal,” they may be embarrassed and blame themselves for what happened, or they may fear judging and unsupportive peers.
Often teens do not tell their parents because they fear they will be lectured or blamed for “allowing” the assault to occur.
This is especially true if the teen has been sexually active prior to the assault or if they were engaged in a “forbidden” activity before the assault (e.g., sneaking out of the house, drinking, hitchhiking, or being with people they were told to stay away from). They may fear losing their parents’ trust or being punished for prior activity.
It is important to remember that any time a person does not give consent it is sexual assault—regardless of previous behavior. It is equally important to stress that the survivor’s actions or activities do not cause the assault. Accepting a ride did not, in and of itself, cause the sexual assault; the perpetrator did.
Sexual assault is a terrifying experience. Survivors need calm, reassuring, unconditional support. If a teen you know has been sexually assaulted, or if you would like more information, contact the domestic violence/sexual assault program nearest you.