By: Freda McKissic Bush, MD
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) recognized April as Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month; and they highlighted responsibilities for training and awareness of sexual assault. Additionally, the White House recently declared sex crimes to be “epidemic” on U.S. college campuses, with one in five female students falling victim to sexual assault during their college years.
As part of a nationwide drive to curb sexual assault on U.S. campuses, universities in California and beyond have already taken steps, including seeking to delineate whether consent has been given beyond ‘no means no’. In 2014, the California Legislature passed a law requiring universities to adopt “affirmative consent” language in their definitions of consensual sex. The measure has been called the “yes-means-yes” bill. It defines sexual consent between people as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” The bill states that silence and a lack of resistance do not signify consent and that drugs or alcohol do not excuse unwanted sexual activity.
The Fifty Shades of Gray movie was released earlier this year and has been reviewed and critiqued by many. The movie and the trilogy of books have the potential of normalizing a form of sexual assault. For example, one of the comments I heard from a 20 y/o college female following a viewing of the movie was, “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. It’s just a love story. And she did give her consent.” My response to the young lady was, “What would you call it in any other circumstance if someone tied you up and struck you repeatedly with a leather belt?” She said, “That’s called abuse”. I replied, “Yes, and the abusive person needs serious and long term counseling if that’s how they receive pleasure.”
Recently, I interviewed an adult victim of childhood sexual abuse. Her first recommendation was to be aware an abuser is usually the most unlikely person – a parent, teacher, coach or other trusted adult. The abused child must get counseling, so they do not become abusers. As a child, their brains get “wired crazy” and they are prone to behave as has been modeled for them. Be aware also the victim is subject to suicidal ideation—they just want the abuse to stop: physically, emotionally and psychologically. Her final comment was in the form of a poem expressing hope after counseling:
“Days, months and years have passed, but he has not paid. I must not carry the anger any longer, because my days are darker. Although it is not fair, I must forgive so I can live. I want the joy that once was stolen from me to return. Then my heart will be freed from the bonds of his control….”
Adolescent and young adult sexual experience is often motivated by pressure and circumstances. External pressure to have sex can come in the form of friends who have already had sex. It can also come from partner insistence. Circumstances that lead to unplanned sex can include, getting carried away by sexual arousal, through an “uncontrolled situation”, or viewing sexual images, as in pornography. All of these circumstances lower an individual’s control over their decisions concerning sex, which may lead to later regret. Adolescents and young adults should be helped by parents, educators, and policy makers to be aware of the characteristics of abusive sexual behavior. This awareness will empower them to make assertive and informed decisions concerning their sexuality.1
As caring adults we must be attentive to our children, adolescents and young adults. We must keep our eyes and ears open to their behavior and environment. We must be intentional in helping to create a culture that affirms the dignity of each and every individual.
1Alfonso Osorio,et al, Ph.D.,First Sexual Intercourse and Subsequent Regret in Three Developing Countries, published online 12 October 2011.