Bold Words

It’s a Bold Move to dig in and learn these concepts and to revisit your own understanding of them, especially since definitions continue to evolve. The more you feel comfortable with the meanings, the more competent and confident you’ll be to engage in conversations involving sexual assault. For each term we’ve included a definition and an example that puts the term into context. We’ve also put the terms into four distinct groups: Sexual Assault, Social Factors, Rape Culture and Justice.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault advocacy is a way of supporting survivors after sexual abuse or assault.  Advocacy includes active listening, helping survivors to identify their needs and goals, and providing resources and referrals to enhance healing.  Advocacy services often include crisis intervention, accompaniment to appointments such as medical exams and court proceedings, one-on-one support, and help for family members, using a nonjudgmental approach to survivors’ experiences and feelings.

  • Sexual assault survivors can go to community-based advocacy programs such as Rape Crisis Centers to get free, confidential help with what they are going through and the services they may need.

A sense of agency is a sense of control over actions and their consequences. Sexual assault survivors often feel powerless and as though they no longer have control over their own lives. The advocacy process helps to restore a sense of agency by encouraging survivors to make their own decisions and act independently.

  • By respecting survivors as the experts on their own lives and needs, advocates can help them regain a sense of agency.

When a person deliberately tries to get an individual drunk or high in order to target them for rape or other nonconsensual sexual activity, this is alcohol/drug-facilitated sexual assault. This may include sneaking drugs into drinks or lying about how much alcohol is in a mixed drink, or just encouraging a person to go beyond their usual limit.

  • Alcohol-facilitated sexual assault is much more common than the use of “date rape” drugs.

Bullying is repeated aggressive behavior such as physical or verbal attacks or making threats. Sexual bullying can include making inappropriate sexual comments, ridiculing a person’s body, threatening to disclose embarrassing sexual information or photos, or online harassment (see cyberviolence). The bully is usually perceived as more powerful than the victim.

  • Bullying creates fear and uncertainty in victims, who worry about what the bully will do next to hurt them.

Child sexual abuse includes sexual assault or sexual exploitation (such as involvement in pornography). The person who abuses may be an adult or another young person who has power over the victim because of an age or ability difference. Children of all genders may be victimized. The person who abuses is usually someone the child knows, which adds to a sense of betrayal for the survivor. 

  • Child sexual abuse is a serious problem that can cause long-lasting harm, regardless of what form it takes.

Sexual coercion is the use of pressure, trickery, threats, or manipulation to force a person into unwanted sexual activity. It may include the use of drugs or alcohol to lower resistance. See also reproductive coercion.

  • When a teen says, “You would have sex with me if you really loved me.  If you won’t do it, I’m going to break up with you,” that’s sexual coercion.

In California, people who do advocacy work at rape crisis centers are called “sexual assault counselors” under the law.  We use the term “Counselor/Advocate” for people who have taken the required training to work with survivors in community-based programs.

  • Counselor/Advocates provide crisis intervention, emotional support, legal and medical information, and safety planning for survivors of sexual abuse and assault.

Cyberviolence (which includes cyberbullying) is the use of online behavior to intentionally harm another person.  It can include threats, stalking, exposing personal information or photos (revenge porn), spreading rumors, limiting a person’s freedom, or sexually harassing someone.  It may or may not lead to in-person physical or sexual violence.

  • When someone threatens you online, that is a form of cyberviolence.

Date rape is sexual assault by someone with a social or romantic relationship with the victim. This may be an ongoing relationship or a just a one-time thing. The rapist may use coercion, encourage drug or alcohol use or sneak drugs or alcohol, or use physical force or fear.

  • There is an incorrect idea that date rape isn’t “real rape” because the two people know each other, but in fact it is more common for victims to know the rapist than for them to be assaulted by a stranger. It’s real rape, all right.

Domestic violence is aggressive or violent behavior in the home.  The term is usually used to mean violence against an intimate partner but may include abuse against children or other household members.  Physical, sexual, economic, and emotional abuse are all types of domestic violence.

  • Domestic violence often includes forced or coerced sex as well as physical and emotional harm.

Elder abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or financial.  If an older person (over 65) needs care, then abuse, neglect, or abandonment by a caregiver or trusted person is elder abuse.  

  • While nursing home abuse cases get a lot of publicity, more than half of the perpetrators of elder abuse are family members.

Emergency contraception is used to prevent pregnancy when a person has had unprotected sex.  Access to emergency contraception is vital for rape survivors.

  • You may be surprised to learn that in addition to morning-after pills (which can be taken up to five days after an incident), and IUD can sometimes be placed as a form of emergency contraception.

Grooming is a process of pretending to be kind to someone or to be in love with them in order to pressure them into unwanted sexual activity (or in the case of a child, any sexual activity).

  • People who sexually abuse often target vulnerable children or young people who are lonely and then begin the grooming process by showing them love and attention in order to get them to participate in sexual activities.

Hate crimes are assaults that target people because of their identity.  People who are thought to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) are frequently targeted for hate crimes, which can include verbal, physical, or sexual attacks.

  • Attacks against LGBTQ people account for almost one in five of the hate crimes reported to the FBI.

Incest is sexual activity between closely related people; the legal definition may vary among states and cultures.  When discussing child sexual abuse, incest is usually used to talk about sexual abuse by an immediate family member.

  • Sexual abuse by a sibling is a common but often overlooked form of incest.

Interpersonal violence is violence between individuals, as opposed to collective violence which is violence committed by groups.  It includes violence within families and intimate relationships as well as community violence by acquaintances and strangers.

  • Interpersonal violence is as much of a public health problem as epidemics and diseases; it deserves to be studied and addressed so we can learn how to prevent it.

Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (IPSV) is sexual activity that is forced on a current or former partner or spouse.  It can include threats, coercion, unwanted sexual contact, sexual harassment, and rape. It often (but not always) occurs along with other types of domestic violence, such as physical abuse, and causes as much or more trauma as other forms of sexual violence.

  • Intimate Partner Sexual Violence used to be called “marital rape,” but that is an outdated term because partners may not be married, and the sexual violence may or may not include rape.

Molestation is usually used to refer to acts of child sexual abuse and exploitation.  More generally, it means to annoy or disturb. It is an older term, and often seems to imply sexual abuse of a young child.

  • Currently, most people describe sexual violence against children as sexual abuse or assault rather than molestation, which may not sound as bad.

A pedophile is someone whose primary sexual attraction is to children.

  • Not every person who abuses a child is a pedophile; some people who abuse target both children and adults.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health diagnosis for specific symptoms that last a long time after a person has been exposed to trauma.

  • While most people who have experienced sexual abuse or assault show signs of trauma such as anxiety or trouble sleeping, some go on to develop PTSD which can greatly affect their lives.

Prevention of sexual abuse and assault is a big job, and it starts by looking at the roots of sexual violence in our culture.  Prevention activities are those that work to change the culture which fosters the conditions where sexual violence takes place. To be effective, prevention activities should be conducted over time and tailored to the audience.

  • Prevention efforts that focus only on getting women and girls to take self-defense courses or not walk alone at night miss the point: we need work on ways to reduce sexual violence altogether, and to intervene when a person is in danger.

Reproductive coercion is when a person is forced to make choices about reproductive health issues they don’t want to make.  For example, a partner may pressure a person to get pregnant or forcefully refused to let them use birth control, or they may not allow someone else to make their own decision about continuing a pregnancy.

  • An extreme example of reproductive coercion is when a partner throws out a woman’s birth control pills or refuses to wear a condom after agreeing to do so.

When someone shares intimate images (usually photos or videos) without the subject’s consent in order to embarrass or hurt them, that is revenge porn.  It often happens after a breakup.

  • Because of social media, revenge porn can be spread to a huge number of viewers and may be impossible to remove, causing lasting harm.

A sex offender is a legal term to describe a person who is convicted a sex crime, such as rape or child sexual abuse.  Teens may be called “juvenile sex offenders,” while those younger than 12 are often called “children with sexual behavior problems.”  Each state has its own requirements for sex offenders to register for law enforcement and public notification purposes.

  • Most states have a website where you can look up the location of registered sex offenders.

Sex trafficking is a form of exploitation that involves forcing, coercing, or threatening people to engage in sexual activity for commercial gain.  This includes sex acts, pornography, or sexual performance done in exchange for anything of value. Anyone who tries to profit from the sexual activity of a minor is a sex trafficker. 

  • Describing commercial sexual activity of kids as “sex trafficking” rather than “child prostitution” makes it clear that these kids are victims, not criminals.

The term “sexual abuse” is often used to describe offenses against child victims, but it can also refer to repeated forced or coerced sexual activity against an adult, usually by someone who is part of that person’s life.

  • Sexual abuse can make it difficult for survivors to form trusting intimate relationships later in life.

Sexual assault is forced or coerced sexual activity without someone’s consent.  It includes rape, but also a wide variety of other unwanted sexual acts. Sexual violence is a broad term that isn’t part of the legal code but describes the full range of behaviors where sex is used as a weapon of power and control.

  • Sexual violence includes rape, other forms of sexual assault, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, child sexual abuse, and Intimate Partner Sexual Violence.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It usually falls into two main categories: (1) patterns of behavior that create a hostile work or educational environment, such as inappropriate comments, touching, jokes, or images; or (2) quid pro quo, which means a person gets something, like a promotion or good grades, in return for engaging in a sexual activity.

  • Sexual harassment in schools, the military, and other work situations can make it difficult or impossible for a person to learn, succeed, and thrive.

Sexual misconduct describes behaviors that are inappropriate or prohibited, even if they are not necessarily illegal – for example, a boss having sex with someone they supervise.  In colleges, workplaces, and the military, sexual misconduct usually refers to any sexual behavior that is against the rules, usually because one person has power over the other or the behavior is unwanted.

  • Many companies, religious organizations, and universities have sexual misconduct policies that are intended to promote dignity and respect.

Stalking is a crime that often comes along with sexual violence.  Stalking may involve physical actions such as following a person or damaging their property, or it may consist of cyberstalking via email, text, or social media.

  • Survivors often believe that their worries about being stalked are not taken seriously, but stalkers can become dangerous and can create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that is truly harmful.

Some people who have experienced sexual violence prefer the term “survivor” to “victim,” because it emphasizes strength and resilience.  Historically, the word “survivor” has been used in the rape crisis movement as a term of respect and empowerment.

  • It is always critical to listen to survivors’ voices when planning sexual assault services, and to remember that survivors are the experts on their own lives and experiences.

Systems abuse refers to sexual violence that takes place within institutions such as the military, higher education, organized religion, and prisons or detention centers.  It includes the culture and norms of some institutions that make it more likely that people will be victimized and that they will have a hard time finding justice.

  • The ongoing scandal of sexual abuse by clergy that has been covered up and denied by religious institutions is an example of systems abuse.

Also (perhaps more accurately) called Adolescent Relationship Abuse, teen dating violence describes physical, sexual, and verbal abuse that takes place between teens in either a casual or an ongoing romantic relationship.

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 36 boys in high school report having experienced sexual dating violence in the 2018.

Trauma is a highly disturbing or distressing experience that creates an emotional reaction.  It may be a one-time event, such as a rape; an ongoing series of events, such as child sexual abuse; or a set of conditions, such as severe poverty or neglect by a parent.  Trauma can produce a variety of reactions, both short-term and long-term.

  • People who have experienced trauma may have difficulty sleeping, relaxing, getting close to other people, or having hope for the future.  They may also develop impressive coping skills that lead to resilience.

Social Factors

Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities.  Sexual assault survivors with disabilities may face negative stereotypes, uneducated service providers, and problems with finding accessible services.  

  • Ableism is a major barrier for survivors with disabilities; their voices must be heard in creating services for everyone.

Abuse of power is using a position of authority, privilege, or power to force someone into sexual activity or make someone sexually uncomfortable.

  • The uncounted acts of sexual violence that people in slavery experienced were clear examples of abuse of power.

Sometimes also referred to as “under color of law,” abuse under color of authority means acts that are committed by someone in the course of their duties as an authority figure.

  • When a prison guard orders an inmate to strip for the guard’s sexual gratification rather than a legitimate security reason, that is abuse under color of authority.

We are usually assigned a sex label at birth, most often “male” or “female.”  When someone’s gender identity (what they consider themselves to be) is the same as that assigned sex, they are called “cisgender.”

  • A cisgender man, for example, may not understand that simply identifying with the sex he was assigned at birth has made life easier for him, because his look and behavior are what is expected.

Emotional labor is all the unseen work, usually done by women, to keep people feeling good.  It might be trying to keep all your work colleagues happy with each other or being the partner who organizes every family celebration and makes sure people get along.

  • Because women are usually expected to perform most of the emotional labor in relationships, they are often blamed (or blame themselves) even when they are physically or sexually victimized by a partner.

Ethnicity is a shared cultural identity based on factors such as language, religion, music, food, or nationality.  Ethnicity is sometimes confused with race, but people of various races can share an ethnic identity.

  • Ethnic groups such as Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and African-Americans each have their own distinct cultural traditions.

Femininity is used to describe socially constructed behaviors, characteristics, and roles usually associated with women and girls.

  • Boys are often ridiculed if they show any interest in things that are typically described as “feminine,” but people are beginning to understand that all genders may have a range of interests that defy labels.

Feminism is the idea that women should be the political, economic, and social equals of men.  The feminist movement was the foundation from which the anti-sexual violence movement emerged, with the idea being that women and girls could not prosper if they were targets of sexual harassment and violence.

  • While feminism has brought attention to the impact of domestic and sexual violence as well as the fight for economic justice for women, the feminist movement has been criticized for ignoring the specific challenges faced by women of color.

Fragility may be what people feel about the historic and current injustices committed by people of dominant cultures against people who have been historically oppressed.  It may also be what people feel because they themselves have committed oppressive acts or failed to stand up for the rights of others. Fragility is a sense of defensiveness some people express when various topics of oppression are brought up. 

  • In order to have authentic conversations about how racism plays into sexual violence, white people shouldn’t let their white fragility interfere with their willingness to do the right thing and fight against oppression.

Gender is complicated!  It’s the way that society, culture, and we ourselves see our bodies and identities, and it may or may not correspond to a person’s biologically determined sex of “male,” “female,” or “other.”  See “gender identity.”

  • People used to think there were only two genders – male and female – but we now can list many nonbinary options for how people experience their gender.

Gender expression is how people show their gender identity (see below) through clothing, behavior, and appearance.

  • A person may have different gender expression at different points in life, or even on different days of the week if they have a more fluid idea of how they want to present themselves.

Gender identity is a person’s own internal sense of gender.  Traditionally, adults were expected to identify as either a man or a woman; now we understand that someone may identify as both male and female, neither gender, or something else altogether.

  • In some Native American communities, “Two Spirit” people were traditionally individuals who were considered neither male nor female; they had a distinct gender identity.

Heterosexism is prejudice or bias against people who are not heterosexual, such as gay or lesbian people.  

  • As legal protections for gay and lesbian people are rolled back, heterosexism can flourish unchecked.

Intersex people are born with sexual or reproductive body parts that aren’t typically male or female.  Sometimes this is apparent at birth; at other times, this difference may not show up until puberty or even later in life.  Biological sex is more complicated than most people think: it consists of body anatomy, genetics, and hormones.  

  • It’s not always easy for doctors to characterize a person as male, female, or intersex at birth, and there is a lot of controversy about how to handle this issue with young children.

Heteronormative refers to the attitude that being heterosexual is “normal” and any other sexual orientation is “deviant.”

  • The heteronormative assumption that everyone is straight can lead to awkward and hurtful social interactions – for example, asking a new coworker if he is married, and then inquiring about his wife (when he has a husband).

Institutional racism is racism that is “built in” to policies, practices, and procedures.  While there may or may not be an intent to favor white people, institutional racism sets up barriers, setbacks, and limitations for people of color.

  • Black kids are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white kids, a form of institutional racism that has profound effects on these young people, their families, and their communities.

Internalized bias is our own negative perception of a group we belong to because we have absorbed these thoughts from the culture around us.  

  • Internalized oppression may affect sexual assault survivors because they have strong feelings of shame or inferiority based on who they are.

LGBTQ+ is used to include a variety of sexual orientations, genders, and gender identities.  It stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer. (See definitions for trans and queer below.)

  • The plus sign in LGBTQ+ shows that there are other people who may identify with this group, such as people who identify as  intersex, genderqueer, or asexual.

Masculinity is used to describe the socially constructed behaviors, characteristics, and roles usually associated with men and boys.

  • Some versions of masculinity (patriarchal, hyper) teach men and boys that they are supposed to have power and control over others which can lead to sexual violence.

As discussed under “Gender Identity,” there are many more ways a person can identify than simply as a man or a woman, regardless of appearance or reproductive organs. It’s important not to make assumptions or be intrusive about a person’s gender. 

  • If we created safer environments for gender nonconforming identities, such as nonbinary, it would reduce rates of sexual violence.

Oppression is defined as unfairly holding a person or a group down or holding them back.  Sexism, racism, ableism, and ageism are examples of forms of oppression where power is used to harm and control people because of a historically targeted characteristic.

  • Sexual violence can be a form of oppression that is used to dominate and control.

Outing is letting people know about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity without that person’s consent, for example, posting that someone is gay on social media.  It is a violation of privacy and personal boundaries and is never okay.

  • Outing can be dangerous and even deadly, because LGBTQ+ people are often victims of hate crimes.

Privilege (in the context of talking about oppression and discrimination) means unearned benefits that accompany power.  It’s the good stuff you get (unearned rights, access, and opportunities) just because of who you are, not because of anything you do.

  • People often don’t consider themselves to have privilege because they take for granted the opportunities that flow to them just because they are white, male, cisgender, wealthy, or able-bodied; they may not realize that other people’s experiences can be, and often are, very different.

In case you’ve forgotten your grammar lessons, pronouns are the words we use instead of the name of a person, such as “she, he, they, hers, his, theirs.”  When people have nonbinary gender identities, they often don’t want to be called by traditional “she or he” pronouns.

  • It was cause for celebration when the Merriam-Webster Dictionary embraced the use of the singular “they” in 2019 for people who don’t identify as either male or female, or when a person’s gender identity is unknown.

The word “queer” is usually used to describe people who aren’t heterosexual or aren’t cisgender, but it has different meanings for different people.  Historically, it was used as an insult, but gradually it was taken back by the LGBTQ+ community and used as a term of pride.

  • UCLA has a coalition of student groups that serve LGBTQ+ students and allies; it’s called the Queer Alliance.

While our racial identity is usually based partly on physical characteristics such as skin color and partly on how we see ourselves as part of a racial group, our ethnic identity refers to the cultural group we belong to.  Many people consider themselves multiracial or multiethnic.

  • People may describe themselves in terms of their racial identities (such as black, white, or Asian), or their ethnic identities (such as German-American, Cherokee, or Latina).

Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another, and the actions and practices that come from that belief, leading to prejudice and discrimination.  It can be either blatant or much more subtle.

  • Racism in U.S. healthcare (such as the undertreatment of pain among black patients and the high rate of black maternal mortality in childbirth) can lead to sexual assault survivors wanting to avoid getting medical care.

While faith communities can offer a great deal of support to survivors, they can also reinforce harmful stereotypes of sexual assault victims and lead to more self-blame or community shaming of victims.  When sexual assault takes place within the context of marriage or another intimate relationship, the response by a faith leader may affect the survivor’s safety and emotional healing.

  • You can support a survivor without endorsing any particular religion, for example by asking, “Do you have any religious or spiritual resources that can help you through this difficult time?”

Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex or stereotypes about sex roles, including the belief that women and girls are inferior in some way.

  • Sometimes women’s accounts of sexual assault or harassment are dismissed or minimized because of sexism.

Sexual orientation has to do with who you desire romantically and/or sexually.

  • People may describe their sexual orientation as straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual; others prefer not to apply any labels to themselves.

Shame is the internal sense that a person is bad or unworthy.  It is different from guilt, which is what we feel when we have done something wrong, or think we have.  Shame can make us feel bad about ourselves as people.

  • Adults who sexually abuse children often place the blame and responsibility on the child, which can lead to a lifelong sense of shame for survivors.

Silence is the field in which secrecy grows and bad things go unnoticed.  To silence someone is to ignore their experiences and their viewpoint.

  • Many campaigns to reduce the stigma of being a sexual assault survivor work to break the silence around sexual violence.  We can no longer silence the voices of survivors.

The word “trans” generally refers to people who identify as transgender.  This means that they don’t feel the sex they were assigned at birth is really who they are.  They may embrace a range of different gender identities – in other words, their sense of themselves may be male, female, both, or neither.  Sometimes the word “trans” refers to a transsexual person, who lives as a different gender than their assigned birth sex.

  • A trans person may or may not take hormones or have surgery to help their body fit with their gender identity; this is a very private matter that should not be up for discussion unless it is their choice to talk about it.

Transphobia is an irrational fear of, hatred for, or prejudice against transgender or transsexual people.

  • Transphobia can lead to hate crimes, high suicide rates, and high rates of sexual violence. 

Rape Culture

Culture is the way of life for a particular group of people, including the attitudes, values, and characteristics they share.

  • Sometimes I think that teenagers have a completely different culture than most adults.

Denial is a way of pretending to yourself that something isn’t true or hasn’t happened.  It can be a valuable coping mechanism when something overwhelming has happened, but it can also make it difficult to work through the possible consequences.  Entire groups and societies can be in denial when they refuse to face facts.

  • College administrators who think that sexual assault never happens on their campus are in denial, because we know that college-age people are at high risk of sexual assault.

When someone has a sense of entitlement, it means they have an arrogant belief that they deserve unearned benefits or privileges.

  • A boss who believes he has the right to make comments about female employees’ bodies has an unhealthy (and illegal) sense of entitlement.

Gender stereotypes are traditional, rigid ways of thinking about how men and women should behave.  For example, “girls should always be nice and never get angry,” or “boys shouldn’t cry.”

  • Researcher David Lisak has found that “undetected rapists” (men who have committed sexual assault but not been caught) are more likely to believe in traditional gender stereotypes for both men and women.

Intimidation is making someone feel afraid or threatened.  Sometimes just being bigger, stronger, or more powerful can make you intimidating to another person.

  • Child abusers rarely have to use physical force, because it is easy for adults to intimidate kids with threats, lies, or just their authority.

“Locker Room Talk” is a term that is often used to excuse sexually degrading words or actions, usually by males against females.

  • When Miranda complained to her teacher that some boys had been discussing her bra size and this made her feel very uncomfortable, the teacher dismissed her concerns by saying that this was just “locker room talk” and she shouldn’t take it seriously.

Marginalization is the process of disregarding a group of people by considering them less important than other groups that are usually more privileged or powerful.

  • People who live on the fringes of society or isolated communities experience marginalization which can put them at higher risk for sexual violence because of lack of resources or equal protection under the law.

The MeToo movement started in 2006 as a way of lifting up the voices of survivors of sexual assault and harassment, who all too often have felt that they could not tell their stories.  Tarana Burke began MeToo specifically to support survivors of color; nearly a decade later, it spread as a viral hashtag that enabled survivors to break the silence around sexual violence.

  • The MeToo movement has become an international phenomenon, with survivors around the world speaking up about sexual assault and harassment.

A microaggression is an everyday behavior that shows bias toward a marginalized group and makes the person targeted by the behavior feel insulted or uncomfortable.

  • Examples of microaggressions would be a white person seeming surprised that a black person is in a position of authority, or an able-bodied person speaking to the companion of a person using a wheelchair as though the person with a disability were not present or competent.

Misogyny is contempt or hatred for women or girls.  

  • Women in politics or high powered positions often experience high volumes of misogyny in the form of hate speech, rape and death threats.

When sexual violence is normalized, that means it is accepted and not named as something destructive.

  • The classic book “I Never Called It Rape” described how sexual coercion and assault in dating relationships became so normalized that survivors did not even realize that what they experienced was rape.

Patriarchy describes a society or culture in which men are dominant and hold most of the power.  

  • For those who doubt that government is still a patriarchy, it is worth noting that less than one-quarter of U.S. senators are women.

According to the World Health Organization, “Sexual violence is an aggressive act.  The underlying factors in many sexually violent acts are power and control, not, as is widely perceived, a craving for sex.”

  • As an act of power and control, sexual assault is intended to cause terror and humiliation in the victim.

When one person has more power and authority than the other because of privilege, position, age, physical strength, or other factors, there is a power differential.

  • Organizations usually prohibit supervisors from having intimate relationships with those they supervise because the power differential makes it difficult for the employee to say “yes” or “no” freely.

Rape culture describes how sexual violence is normalized or even promoted by treating women or other marginalized groups as less than human, minimizing the effects of sexual mistreatment, blaming victims, and glorifying sexual violence.  It affects men and boys by putting pressure on them to be sexually aggressive and others refusing to believe males can be victims. Calling out rape culture can prevent sexual violence in our culture and communities. 

  • After news reports of a sexual assault, comments on social media often blame the victim and reflect the underlying assumptions of rape culture.

Sexual exploitation is any behavior that takes advantage of another person sexually.  Some examples would be sex trafficking, using a child in pornographic images, or forcing a homeless runaway to exchange sex for food and or a place to stay.

  • By definition, child sexual abuse is a form of sexual exploitation, because the adult is using their power and authority to coerce the child into engaging in sex.

Sexual objectification is basing a person’s worth on their sexual attributes.  It is usually, but not exclusively, directed toward women.

  • Some of the more disturbing types of sexual objectification include ad campaigns that use bodies of female models, without showing their heads, or use women’s bodies as objects that substitute for an item like a table.

Slut shaming is making women or girls feel bad about their sexuality or sexual behavior in a way that would never apply to a man or a boy.  Our society gives girls and women conflicting messages about being sexual – they should make themselves look sexually desirable, but not assert themselves sexually.

  • Author Leora Tanenbaum says, “I have yet to meet an American woman under the age of 25 who has not been called a ‘slut’ or a ‘ho’ at some point in her life.”

Victim blaming is a major part of rape culture.  Sexual assault or abuse victims are often asked what they were wearing, why they were out late at night, why they were alone with the rapist, or why they didn’t fight back physically (even if the attacker was twice their size).  Victim blaming means the focus is on the victim’s behavior as a reason for the assault, not the perpetrator’s.

  • Victim blaming is a major reason why people who have experienced sexual assault are reluctant to follow through with the criminal justice system after reporting what happened.


Accessibility means reducing or removing barriers for people with disabilities and anyone else who might find obstacles in their way.  It is important to consider accessibility in services, resources, and training.

  • Rape Crisis Centers can increase accessibility by making sure their facilities are easy to navigate for people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues, providing interpreters (including American Sign Language interpreters for those who are Deaf), and offering large type written materials.

Accountability means holding people responsible for their actions.  Perpetrators of sexual assault must be held accountable instead of blaming victims; institutions should be accountable for supporting survivors and creating safe environments; and everyone should be accountable for eliminating bias and discrimination.

  • Parents are demanding accountability for schools that do nothing to prevent or respond to bullying.

An affinity group is a group of people with similar backgrounds, goals, or interests.  They are often informal groups in the workplace that unite members of marginalized groups for mutual support and action.  Large conferences may also offer affinity groups for networking and connection.

  • Some of the affinity groups at the National Sexual Assault Conference have included the Queer Community, Pan-African Communities, Native American/First Nations Communities, Pan-Asian Communities, and People with Disabilities.

An ally is a person with privilege who does not belong to a particular group but wants to support that group in their struggle for social justice.  A good ally takes a step back and listens to members of the group they want to support, confronts their own bias, speaks up against prejudice and discrimination, and takes action if it will help.

  • Many schools have gay/straight alliances where LGBTQ+ students and straight allies work together to make the school a safer and more supportive place for all students.

Bodily integrity is the right of each person to decide what happens with their own body, such as who gets to touch it and when.  Any form of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault that involves physical contact without consent violates bodily integrity.

  • It’s possible to teach even very young children bodily integrity by letting them decide whether or not they want to hug someone – even Grandma!

Boundaries are the invisible lines we draw around ourselves to stay safe and healthy.  They may be physical, such as deciding who can touch us, or emotional, such as telling a partner it is not okay to read texts on our phones without permission.

  • Comprehensive sex education includes teaching children and teens about healthy boundaries.

Discrimination means treating someone unfairly because of who they are, such as their race, sex, gender expression, or age.  It can be built into the way that institutions and societies work.

  • Laws that support fair housing and equal opportunity in education and employment won’t end discrimination, but they provide tools to fight back when discrimination occurs.

Empathy is understanding and being sensitive to other people’s thoughts and feelings.  It means that you can put yourself in their place, at least to a certain degree, and that you care about how they feel.

  • Sexual offenders are commonly lacking in empathy.

Equity implies that an individual may need to experience or receive something different (not equal) in order to maintain fairness and access.

  • Gender equity is an important goal, because fairness in hiring practices and paying people fair wages signals that all genders are valuable and challenges discrimination, which can prevent gender-based violence.

Healing from sexual violence can be a long process, because sexual assault or abuse affects every aspect of a person’s life.  Along with support from family and friends, services such as community-based advocacy and mental health therapy can assist a survivor to heal.

  • For a child to heal from sexual abuse, it is critical to have a supportive adult who believes them and helps them.

Implicit bias consists of attitudes (usually acquired when we are growing up) not evident even to the person who holds them.

  • It can be uncomfortable to take a quiz about implicit bias and realize that you hold biased viewpoints that you are not consciously aware of.

Inclusion means inviting everyone to the table, making them feel welcome, and listening to their voices.  For example, this could mean having a building that is accessible to people with disabilities or making sure that you consider the needs of people experiencing homelessness when planning services.

  • Having survivors involved in planning sexual assault services is an important form of inclusion.

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) identified a concept known as intersectionality.  What this means is that each of us exists at an intersection of social identities, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. It is through those intersections that systems, laws, and sometimes individuals respond to us. 

  • An example of intersectionality might be a person who identifies as a Black lesbian woman or a Latino heterosexual man.

Jurisdiction has to do with which law enforcement agency responds to and investigates crimes.  This is often based on the location of the crime.

  • Investigations for sexual assaults committed on Native American lands can be complicated, with some crimes under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement and some under tribal police.

The term “people of color” is usually used to describe someone who is not considered white, and generally is used in reference to experiences of systemic racism.  

  • There is some controversy over the use of the term “people of color,” so it is always important to ask people how they prefer to be identified.

In discussing domestic and sexual violence, it is always important to be clear about who is responsible: the person who commits the act.  Sometimes institutions such as schools or the military bear some responsibility for creating a culture where sexual violence is not taken seriously.

  • When we talk about the dynamics of sexual assault in relationships, we must be clear that the person who commits the assault is ultimately responsible.

Restorative Justice is an approach that focuses on repairing the harm created by a crime (both to individuals and to the community), rather than simply punishing the offender.  It may involve meetings between the survivor and the person who harmed them, but there are a variety of other tools (such as circles of support) for justice.

  • One argument for exploring Restorative Justice options for sexual violence is that only a tiny fraction of sexual offenders is ever convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated.

Retraumatization or revictimization happens when a survivor encounters a situation that brings up all the original feelings they had at the time of the assault or abuse.  They may be the victim of an additional crime, or they may suffer because of the way service providers treat them.

  • Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) are specially trained to avoid retraumatizing the victim during a forensic exam after a rape.

Self-care is engaging in healthy practices that allow us to cope with stress.  For a survivor, it might mean learning how to deal with anxiety and fear through therapy.  For someone who works with survivors, it means being aware of your own reactions and finding positive ways to reduce your stress and increase your resilience.

  • Self-care isn’t just the responsibility of the individual; agencies that work with traumatized people on a daily basis need to consider the needs of their staff for emotional health and support.

The message of sex positivity is that healthy sexuality and consensual sex are wonderful parts of life!  This movement includes upholding the rights of the individual to decide what gives them pleasure as long as they are not harming or coercing others.

  • Sex positivity reminds us that in our quest to protect young people from abuse and exploitation, we must remember to say that sex is a natural and healthy part of life that can give people great pleasure under the right circumstances.

If we are going to have conversations about sexual violence, we need to balance these with conversations about sexual health.  This may include topics such as healthy relationships, pregnancy prevention and contraception, other reproductive health topics, puberty, changes in sexuality with age, and taking care of our medical needs such as mammograms and testicular exams.

  • Comprehensive sex education helps young people to become advocates for their own sexual health.

Transformative Justice goes beyond Restorative Justice to address the root causes of sexual violence and to consider community and societal aspects of securing safety and healing.

  • Transformative Justice seeks to change the social norms that perpetuate sexual violence and to address issues of power and privilege.

Because so many people in the general public have experienced some sort of trauma in their life, it is important that every service agency (medical, advocacy, therapeutic, and criminal justice) considers how their practices and policies might affect a survivor of trauma.

  • Because trauma-informed services focus on respectful and sensitive interactions, they are good for everyone!