Sexual Assault Awareness Month: How Can We Help Those at Risk?

Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2021

When we think of those who are the most vulnerable to abuse, what kind of person comes to mind? If you thought of women and girls, you are not wrong — women and girls experience a much larger proportion of abuse compared to boys and men. However, other populations, like the elderly, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities and those who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, are also at a greater risk of being sexually assaulted.

The podcast Bodies focuses on women’s health. Each episode highlights a different woman (or nonbinary person) who has experienced uncertainty related to their body and follows them on their journey to finding an answer to what is going on. One episode featured a woman who had been through many years of abuse but had a difficult time seeking help and eventually reached the point where she could not perform tasks at her job. The reason for this, it was discovered, was that she had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from years of abuse. 

TBI is a common cause of disability; about 21 million Americans have one. Assault causes about 10% of these cases, and TBI is common among survivors. When someone has a TBI, they may experience symptoms like dizziness, confusion or inability to remember recent events. This creates substantial barriers when reporting sexual assault, and survivors may not be considered competent to testify in court, which could have ramifications when it comes to conviction and protection against future attacks. Also, people with any disability, not just TBI, are more likely to experience abuse more than once, which means that survivors with disabilities are a much greater risk. 

Another group that is more vulnerable is the elderly, especially those who are under the care of another individual or who have dementia. Oftentimes, an elderly person with dementia is unable to consent to any kind of sexual activity. Additionally, people with dementia may be unable to testify in court due to memory loss, similar to someone with a TBI. It is important that we remember and acknowledge that for many survivors, especially those who cannot advocate for themselves, asking for and receiving help is only a small part of the battle.

LGBTQ+ individuals are also less likely to seek help for assault despite having higher rates than non-LGBTQ+ people. A significant barrier to finding help is discrimination, as well as homophobia and transphobia. This may be more of a deterrent in the South or in rural areas, which tend to be less openly accepting towards the LGBTQ+ community. Regardless of the location, someone may not know if the services they are seeking are inclusive or not, especially if it is their first time seeking help. 

It is also important to consider that many survivors may share multiple identities, which make it difficult to seek and receive help for sexual assault. For example, a Black woman who is part of the LGBTQ+ community may experience different barriers than a white person who identifies as LGBTQ+. Also, someone may be elderly and gender non-conforming, or have a TBI as well as other disabilities. We also must consider the role of invisible disabilities; people with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of sexual assault but are less likely to be believed by police. 

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we need to go beyond the narrative that sexual violence only affects a small group of people. When doing any kind of advocacy work for sexual assault, we must first ask ourselves if we are being truly inclusive. This means first confronting any internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, or other prejudice. This is especially true at a PWI like NC State, when spaces tend to be dominated by white, able-bodied individuals. 

As college students, it makes sense to focus on preventing sexual assault in college. But as active citizens of society, we need to remember that sexual violence and prevention do not start or end on college campuses. Even if you have not been affected by sexual assault, it is likely that you know someone who has. Instead of confining our advocacy efforts to identities we know and understand, we need to expand our outreach to include marginalized groups of people, and we can use our platform to advocate for those who are at the greatest risk. How can we do this? Here are some good places to start: 

  1. Listen and validate people’s experiences without judgment.
  2. Share resources via social media.
  3. Speak out when you hear false information about sexual assault or information that perpetuates stereotypes.
  4. Volunteer with RAINN or Interact.
  5. If someone discloses to you that that they been impacted by sexual assault, follow these tips from RAINN.
  6. When possible, do your own research. Survivors often have to carry the burden of educating others, and that can be exhausting.

Additional Resources

Skye Sarac is an undergraduate intern in the Women’s Center.