Who Bears The Mental Health Burden For Discussing Sexual Violence?

sexual violence survivor with stop written on hand

She was asking for it.

Boys will be boys.

What was she expecting dressed like that?

I’d bet you already guessed the topic these often-repeated phrases refer to — sexual violence.

Story after story on sexual assault, incest, rape, and abuse are written by survivors, explaining their situation ad nauseam to men and not letting them off the hook with “boys will be boys.” That, no, an unconscious drunk woman was not “asking for it,” and she was certainly not capable of giving consent to a sexual encounter. That wearing a revealing outfit also does not mean a woman was “looking for attention.” That “20 minutes of action” indeed merits steep criminal charges because a survivor’s life is invariably and monumentally altered by sexual violence — often for a lifetime.

Survivors share their experiences of sexual violence to challenge the world to do better, to make the world safer, asking for allies to step up to the plate and make a difference. They’re still met with too much silence. Survivors shouldn’t be the only ones doing the hard work of dismantling rape culture.

Not only have they survived one of the worst crimes that can be committed against another human, the burden of proof — both in and out of court — always lies at the feet of survivors. It’s the survivor whose reputation is dragged through the mud if she decides to come forward in any arena.

Even more significant, it’s her mental health that suffers most. Mentally recovering from sexual assault can take months or even years. According to Mental Health America, many survivors report flashbacks of their assault, and feelings of shame, isolation, shock, confusion, and guilt. People who were victims of rape or sexual assault are at an increased risk for developing: depression, PTSD, substance use disorders, eating disorders, and anxiety. Approximately 33 percent of women who are raped will contemplate suicide, and 13 percent attempt suicide. That’s a high price to pay.

“It still appears that rape is being primarily addressed by women,” writes survivor Lara Naughton. “Vulnerable groups should not be expected to solve, fix, eradicate, heal, reveal, reverse, prevent, cure, or combat the problem. Survivors shouldn’t receive the blow then have to stop the fight.”

While the voices of survivors are important to the conversation, they can’t be the only ones expected to do all the heavy lifting, educating the public and advocating for safety from sexual violence. Survivors are not the problem — perpetrators are. So why do survivors end up doing a lion’s share of the work to end sexual violence?

“Right now rape and other forms of violence against women are often marginalized as ‘women’s issues,’” writes Leslie Morgan Steiner, herself a survivor. “The reality is that rape — perpetrating it and preventing it — is at least as much a men’s issue as it is a women’s issue.”

First of all, men are not immune from sexual violence. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. While one out of every six women is a victim of an attempted or completed rape, one in 33 men will experience an attempted or completed rape in his lifetime. One in 10 rape victims are male.

Secondly, regardless of the gender of the survivor, the large majority of perpetrators are male. For male survivors, 93 percent of the time (and 98.1 percent of the time for women), the perpetrator is another man. This makes sexual violence a men’s issue — “not all men” or not.

Men need to stand alongside survivors and use their privilege to speak out against rape culture among their friends, family, and colleagues, wherever they see sexual violence happen. This could be shutting down a rape joke, interfering when a coworker is dealing with sexual harassment, pulling friends away from hooking up with a non-consenting woman, and — at the very least — treating women as human beings worthy of autonomy and respect.

“When men laugh at jokes about rape, call women sluts, or push a hesitant woman to have sex with them, they are perpetuating rape culture,” writes Jody Allard. “Ending it requires far more from men than simply shaking their heads in disgust when they read about guys like [Brock] Turner; it requires them to actively and wholeheartedly commit to dismantling a system that prioritizes their desires over women’s bodies. Even when it makes them uncomfortable. Especially when it makes them uncomfortable.”

Why wouldn’t men do better? “Boys will be boys” implies men have no command over their bodies and they simply can’t control themselves. Resorting to sex with an unconscious woman implies a level of desperation that should be embarrassing. Even if it’s a small minority of men who perpetrate it, the denigrating language used to talk about women in everyday language on a broader scale suggests most men could do better.

“All of us must challenge the way men behave towards and speak about women,” writes Matthew Vickery. “Some men do this, but most do not. Silence becomes complicity.”

This extends to our leaders as well, who have a sworn responsibility to protect and advocate for the people they represent. While former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden actively worked against sexual assault on U.S. college campuses, starting the “It’s On Us” campaign, our current administration comprises a president who deems it perfectly acceptable to “grab [women] by the pussy.

As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos aims to roll back Title IX college campus sexual assault protections put in place during the Obama administration, citing a lack of due process on campuses, it’s important for true allies to emerge and shoulder the burden alongside survivors to make the world a safer place for all of us.

We need to keep talking about sexual violence and the mental health implications therein, but survivors can’t do it alone. This means men, it means our leaders, and it means all of us need to stand up.

“It’s our responsibility, men in particular, but all of us, to stop this culture,” Biden said. “We will have succeeded when no woman who is abused ever instinctively asks the question, ‘What did I do?’”

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