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Swedish Health System | Seattle, WA
Kadlec Regional Medical Center | Richland, WA
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Recent studies have discovered that men and younger adults still don’t understand what 'counts' as a sexual assault.
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Here’s why we still need to talk about sexual consent

April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month but this is something that requires ongoing discussion. Why? While recent studies about people’s knowledge of sexual assault showcase some encouraging statistics, there remains a void in understanding what constitutes sexual assault.

Surveys among U.S. adults show that awareness of what constitutes sexual violence is strong. But despite this overall high awareness, men and younger adults still show lower levels of understanding across all categories of sexual assault.

This is why, when it comes to education on what sexual consent is (and isn’t), we still have work to do.

A new study, conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center with YouGov, showed that many people are still unclear on what actually "counts" as sexual assault. Most adults recognize that acts of sexual intercourse without a partner’s consent, unwanted touching, sex trafficking, child pornography, and incest are all types of sexual assault. But other categories are not nearly as well understood.

For example, verbal harassment and voyeurism are much less likely to be viewed as forms of sexual assault. Only 54 percent of adults surveyed realized that verbal harassment is a form of sexual assault and 36 percent didn't know that voyeurism was considered sexual assault. Awareness of verbal harassment is even lower among men and younger adults, a pattern that is seen across all the other types of sexual assault. 18 to 34-year-olds are less likely than older adults, and men are less likely than women to view inappropriate verbal actions as sexual assault. The widest “knowledge gaps” between men and women fall in the categories of verbal harassment, voyeurism, and sexual coercion:

  • 56 percent of men vs. 72 percent of women say “watching someone in a private act without their knowledge or permission” is assault
  • 67 percent of men vs. 79 percent of women say “sexual intercourse where one of the partners is pressured to give their consent” is assault
  • 48 percent of men vs. 60 percent of women say "unwanted verbal remarks that are provocative or unsolicited" is assault 

The authors of the study point out that all individuals and communities have a role to play in preventing sexual assault, including rape or attempted rape – which affects nearly one in five women in the U.S. and a smaller percentage of men.

“Broadening the national conversation on sexual violence helps to build a culture of respect, foster healthy relationships, support survivors and prevent sexual violence in every community,” said Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “Adults of all ages should be able to identify sexual assault in its many forms, whether verbal assault, intercourse where one partner does not give consent, or unwanted touching, such as groping or fondling. The greater the awareness, the more likely individuals will be empowered to engage as bystanders and intervene to prevent sexual assault before or during an act.” While efforts such as Sexual Assault Awareness Month helps to broaden the national conversation on sexual violence, the sexual assault survey demonstrates that much more education is needed.

“We are heartened our survey reveals high levels of awareness around the serious and widespread problem of sexual assault,” said Delilah Rumburg, CEO of NSVRC. "However, the findings also pinpoints where our efforts must expand, namely among young adults and men, to foster an inclusive and productive conversation on sexual violence that will lead to better education, prevention efforts, and outcomes."

As awareness of sexual assault continues to improve, educators, coaches, and peers can all do their part to broaden understanding of sexual violence in all areas of society.

If you have questions about the issues raised in this article or need to talk to someone about your personal experience, you can find a doctor who can help you in our provider directory.

Recent studies have discovered that men and younger adults still don’t understand what 'counts' as a sexual assault.