Nonviolent Sexual Assaults: Why Women Need to Take Them Seriously

When we hear the words "sexual assault," a very specific crime typically comes to mind. It conjures up nightmarish images of an attack by a shadowy figure or, sadly, a date who won't take no for an answer. But there is another form of assault that gets little attention these days: the non-violent sexual offense. It can be frightening. It can be devastating but often goes unreported. I know because it happened to me.


Years ago, I was in the library doing research for a paper. Even though it was early evening and the building was full of students, I happened to be pulling volumes in a very isolated area. There was only one exit in and out of the section. Still, I thought nothing when a man sat down in the single chair there. He made a few noises, but I just tried to ignore him. Though after few moments, I looked up and he was exposing himself to me. Naturally, I was startled at first; it was more out of surprise than fear. Then anxiety set in as I realized that I had to walk close to him to get out. I grabbed my things and rushed by, never looking him in the eye.

It was a bizarre situation, to be sure. And I knew it was a crime but I nearly left without reporting it. I began to wonder if I had seen what I really thought I had seen. And since I didn't really look at his face, how would I describe him? Still, I told the front desk and left -- though I wondered if I was making too big a deal out of it since the guy didn't actually "do" anything to me. Little did I know then, this guy would likely continue doing this until he was stopped and could one day escalate his crimes. He could have been a rapist in the making, becoming more bold with each transgression.

But I was not alone in this hesitancy to say anything. Many have told me about experiencing random, unwanted touching on the subway or being the victim of a flasher and they say nothing.

That's a common reaction according to Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. "Victims may feel guilty and think that means that they may be responsible in some way," she explains. "But that guilt is often really triggered by a feeling of fear that comes too close to excitement and makes them feel shame. Then in trying to make sense of it, they may blame themselves unfortunately instead of knowing that the fear/excitement is a normal response to trauma."

If it happens to you, the experts say the best thing to do is not react. The perpetrator is often doing it to get a reaction. Your next move should be to get away from him as quickly as you can.

However, in some instances, a victim may not even be sure a crime has taken place. But it's important to know that these offenses can even be verbal, according to psychotherapist Joan E Childs. "The most common non-violent sexual offenses are verbal and covert sexual behaviors," she says. "Verbal behaviors include the inappropriate use of language that suggests the objectification of women for one's own gratification by using language that is sexually suggestive and that makes a woman feel sexualized and uncomfortable. Some common phrases are 'Nice cheeks, baby! Great tits and ass.' Not physically harmful, however inappropriate, insulting, and vulgar." The key is to trust if you get that "icky feeling," advises Childs, the author of Why Did She Jump: My Daughter's Battle With Bipolar Disorder.

The fact that these crimes are not as violent in nature is the primary reason women don't think they need to report them. "In less overt offenses, there may be uncertainty," says Dr. Saltz, author of Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back. "Victims ask themselves, 'Did he do that? Did I imagine or fantasize that?' If you think it's happening all the time, then there may be an element of overcalling, but if not, then it's more likely something is happening, and do not let your defense against knowing that it is happening keep you from quickly removing yourself from the situation."

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Sadly, some women find they are not taken seriously when they do report these incidences, but that shouldn't be a deterrent. "This is often too common," warns Childs. "We don’t have control over the response; only over our behavior. It is the victim’s responsibility to take it to the authorities. I always advise my patients to do this; otherwise, there will be no redemption and the anger, guilt, and pain will become internalized and can cause depression and anxiety in the victim, not to mention fears that, if not treated, can cause a post-traumatic stress disorder and even paranoia."

Bottom line is it's always good to report this type of crime right away. Time is of the essence when finding these predators, keeping others from experiencing the same fate, and for your own peace of mind.

Have you ever experienced a non-violent sexual assault?


Image via © Corbis

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