“Almost 1 in 10 youth were sexually abused in the past year.”
Sexual violence in our current generations has become too familiar. According to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization, someone gets sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. It is not okay that “there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.” It is also highlighted that people ages 18-34 are 54 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other age group. This type of violence and harassment occurs in everyday places like school, work, or even walking down the street. Research shown through AAUW proves that 89% of campuses don’t report these incidents of assault, but they are too familiar at these schools. This kind of threat serves no place at our schools and makes it so that people feel unsafe and unwelcome and can significantly interfere with one’s learning, mental, and even physical health. Unfortunately, we will see no end to sexual violence without schools, workplaces, law enforcement, and our government on our side.
Sexual violence is when someone “forces or manipulates someone else into unwanted sexual activity without their consent.” Reasons for someone not giving their consent may vary but are not limited to “fear, age, illness, disability, and/or influence of alcohol or other drugs.” Sexual violence has never been more prevalent in current-day youth than in today’s teen generation. In a study published in June 2020 by the World Health Organization, three to 24 percent of women reported that their first sexual experience was forced. Of all victims under 18, two out of three are between the ages of 12 and 17. Sexual violence can affect anyone, anywhere, at any time, and during these times, the situation is sparking conversations about women’s rights. In the UK, discussions involving sexual violence increased after Sarah Everard, 33, was murdered by a police officer while walking home. This revealed the truth involving sexual violence involving women, with research finding that 97 percent of women in the UK have been sexually harassed. When will it be enough? When will we be able to feel safe in our skin?
With these drastically high rates of sexual violence, specifically towards women, we start to think about all the stories that are left untold. Incidents that occur at schools, the workplace, or even at home are left unspoken. Research done by SSAIS, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, reported that 81 percent of students from grades 8 through 11 had experienced sexual harassment, with 87 percent more reporting that it harmed them. We see this recurring issue because most people were never even taught what counts as sexual violence or consent. Sexual violence includes but is not limited to rape or sexual assault, child sexual assault and incest, intimate partner sexual assault, unwanted sexual contact/touching, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, showing one’s naked body to other(s) without consent. These are grave acts that often go overlooked in familiar places, but how can we stop this? How can we support victims and empower them? How can we educate others on this issue?
*TRIGGER WARNING: DESCRIPTIONS OF PERSONAL SEXUAL VIOLENCE STORIES*
Gianna De La Cruz
Gianna De La Cruz, 18, was brave enough to share one of their encounters with sexual assualt. This assualt took place when they were in the fifth grade when Gianna was about ten years old. Gianna describes how a new kid transferred into their class, and they quickly became close friends due to describing themselves as someone who likes “reaching out to people.” This is how they became so close with the attacker. Gianna described their relationship with their attacker, saying they became “really close and talked about things we were going through together.” After a while, there seemed to be a shift in the relationship as they describe it. “He started changing one day and started asking me to be his girlfriend, and I’d say no.” Gianna recalls how they just wanted to stay friends with the aggressor, being as “I was ten and just wanted my friend.” What had one day been an innocent friendship had quickly turned into an uncomfortable relationship.
Gianna recalls the aggressor continuously asking them to be their girlfriend every day for months until they felt obligated to say yes because they were tired of being harassed. Again, the relationship took another turn. Gianna said the aggressor “took it as an invitation to be handsy with me.” The first accounts of this harassment were instances when the attacker forcibly held their hand or waist and just touched them without consent. They took the same bus home from school, so they sat together every day, and one day Gianna remembers wearing “this beautiful blue and red plaid dress. It was my favorite dress at the time, so I wore it to school with a cardigan and some boots because of the dress code.” They sat next to one another, sharing headphones when the aggressor’s hand suddenly began to go up against their leg. Gianna decided to brush it off and thought that maybe he did not realize what he was doing. Gianna recalls looking at the attacker and him just smiling back as if nothing was happening. “He stopped for a minute after I looked at him,” Gianna said, “and so I turned away again to look out the window when he then fully groped me under my dress on the back of the school bus.” De La Cruz shortly after asked the aggressor to stop when he replied, “This is what boyfriends do.” Gianna remembered the relief they felt that the attack occurred soon before their stop, so they “immediately jumped and got off the bus and ran home.” It took years before Gianna realized that this was an assault. “I just knew I didn’t feel comfortable.”
After the assault, Gianna shared how the attacker got more comfortable touching them, so shortly after this, they broke up with the attacker. The aggressor did not take this well, later proceeding to spread rumors about the victim making false claims. “[He went] around the whole school that we slept together and I was begging for it,” Gianna said. “Then he showed up to my house with his friends and called me an ‘ugly wh*re’ to my face.” Even after this, the aggressor started to stalk Gianna, leaving them inappropriate, threatening messages while also waiting around their house just to see them.
This awful experience that Gianna had to go through, like many others, is why many don’t feel comfortable speaking up against this kind of violence. Being scared of the aggressor is a familiar feeling, and as we see in this story, the attacker did not take Gianna’s initiative to stop him very well.
This survivor chose to stay anonymous but briefly described two encounters of sexual violence.
The first encounter was when this victim attended a family member’s party where she was exhausted and lay down on one of her friends she trusted. The victim explains how they’d had a bit to drink but were not unconscious, intoxicated, nor “to the point where I didn’t know what was going on.” The victim recalls having fallen asleep when they started to feel the person they were laying on start to “feel up my shirt and keep her hand there.”
The victim describes how tired they were to the point they didn’t know what to do during the assault. They explained how there were multiple other people in the room so they were too embarrassed to react to the attack. The victim added, “At one point, I got so sick, I decided to wake up and get off her lap and go to my cousin’s bedroom and cry.”
The second encounter was at a second party where again, “I wasn’t drunk or had anything to drink at all,” they said. This attacker, the victim recalled, was in a relationship but continuously tried kissing the victim. They repeatedly said no, obviously not giving any consent, but he continued to try. The victim was trying to fall asleep when the aggressor moved closer and tried to feel the victim under their clothes. The victim then “left the living room and went upstairs again.”
Many don’t realize and are never taught that sexual assualt is also begging or harassing someone into having sexual relations with them until they feel forced to finally give in. This act is called coercion, which means “the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.”. Forcing, begging, or tricking someone into having any form of sexual relation with you is sexual assault and is not correct.
It is vital for people who have been through sexual violence to feel heard, to feel like they matter. Something as small as bringing light to these issues can significantly impact peoples’ lives. Not only is it critical that people feel heard, but that they feel as if justice is being served for them and they’re worth fighting for. When we draw more attention to such everyday issues in such ordinary places, we are spreading awareness. We begin giving power to other survivors who have stayed silent and not sought help. As author and poet Alex Elle put it, “You’re not a victim for sharing your story. You are a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. And you never know who needs your light, your warmth, and raging courage.”