5 Misconceptions About Sexual Assault

upset woman dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault
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Among the many reactions to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's lewd conversation in 2005, the question of whether what Trump was describing constituted sexual assault has struck a cord — and caused a sharp divide.

In an interview with The Weekly Standard, for example, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions said that he did not characterize the behavior Trump described — specifically, grabbing a woman's genitals without consent — as sexual assault.

But Yolanda Moses, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, said that Trump's comments absolutely describe sexual assault.

There's a spectrum of sexual assault, ranging from unwanted touching to rape, Moses told Live Science. But much of the public doesn't understand that actions such as groping or kissing someone against his or her will also constitute sexual assault.

Rape is not the only type of sexual assault, Moses said. Indeed, the Department of Justice defines sexual assault as "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient."

Sexual assault is at the extreme end of what Moses calls the "sexual harassment continuum." "Harassment goes all the way from words, to intimidation to physical violence," she said. 

Here are four more common misconceptions about sexual assault. [6 Ways Sexual Harassment Damages Women's Health]

Misconception: Sexual assault is usually committed by strangers.

Less than one-quarter of sexual assaults are committed by strangers, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Rather, 43 percent of sexual assaults are committed by friends or acquaintances, and 27 percent are committed by a current or former significant other, according to RAINN.

Moses, who is also a consultant/trainer for sexual harassment and sexual assault at UC Riverside, said that when she talks to incoming freshmen, she tells them that it's more important to look out for sexual assault from people they know.

But it may be hard for some people to accept that people they know could commit sexual assault.

People may think that sexual assault is often committed by strangers because people want to believe that it's not possible that someone close to them could do this, said Brian Pinero, the vice president for victim services at RAINN.

Misconception: Sexual assault only happens to women and girls.

Although sexual assault against women and girls is more common, sexual assault can also happen to men and boys.

One in 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN. For men and boys, that figure is 1 in 33.

Misconception: Sexual assault is provoked by the victim's actions.

Victims don't provoke sexual assault, but "victim blaming" is still common.

It's difficult for some people to believe that another person could commit sexual assault so they may try to pin it on the victim by saying they were "asking for it," Pinero said. But sexual assault is never caused by what a victim is doing, saying or wearing, he said.

Rather, an assault is the result of a choice made by the perpetrator — someone chose to inflict harm upon the victim or chose to push the victim into an unwanted situation, Pinero said.

Misconception: If the victim doesn't struggle against the perpetrator, it's not assault.

Sexual assault can occur even when the victim doesn't struggle or fight back.

However, the idea that the victim needs to have fought back is embedded in our culture. For example, victims are told to go to the hospital immediately following an assault so that doctors can document any abrasions or bruises, which would point to evidence of a struggle, Moses said.

But a lack of bruises doesn't mean that assault didn't happen, Moses said. A victim may not fight back; they may freeze, or feel as if they have to do it, she said.

Pinero agreed.

"Imagine being with someone who has power and not feeling like you have a voice to say something," Pinero said. Victims may also start to blame themselves in instances of sexual assault, he said. "They'll think, 'Did I bring this upon myself'? 'Was I sending out the wrong signal'? 'Maybe I do want this'? All of these things may be playing out in a victim's head, and who are we to decide how someone is supposed to react?" Pinero said.

Sexual assault can happen in established relationships as well, Pinero added. Just because a person said yes to a certain activity once, for example, doesn't mean that a partner has a license to engage in that activity whenever they want, he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.