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On Sexual Assault and Invisibility

faultlineThis past week I had the good fortune to read an advanced copy of a powerful book Fault Line by my good friend Christa Desir.  Fault line tells a story about a young woman who was raped and how that act of violence shatters her and how that shattering reverberates among the people who care about her.  I’m not going to give the whole story away now (it goes on sale on October 15th  (you can purchase it  here), however I want to say two things about it.  First this book really shook me. I want you all to get it because this is the kind of book that makes you want to talk to people you love after reading it. It is a difficult book to read, but then again many important things are often difficult.

The second aspect of the book that struck me was that the woman who was raped went into a spiral of self-destructive behavior because she wanted to be able to feel something, even if that something was negative.  She did not seek help because of multiple reasons and that ultimately lead to some difficult situations.  Seeking help is important and we should be working as a society to lower barriers for victims of sexual assault to get that help.

A big part of the problem facing victims of sexual assault is what has been coined “rape culture” – a persistent set of broadly held beliefs which 1) deemphasize the severity of the attack 2) shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim and 3) create a environment where sexual assault jokes and allusions are more broadly acceptable.   I’m calling bullshit on this.  Ms. Desir has already written a wonderful piece on how guys can reduce rape culture here  and I urge you all to read through and think about what she has to say.  What I would like to add to this conversation is a sense if invisibility that the victims of sexual assault have, and how that allows rape culture to be perpetuated.

I can completely understand how a person who was raped may choose not to come forward and broadcast loudly what they have gone through. I cannot imagine what surviving that act of brutality must be like, and I’m not sure I would be comfortable sharing it with everyone. However many people have gone through this and while I am not down with outing them as victims of sexual assault, I do see some value in raising awareness of how many people have been sexually assaulted.

Some folks don’t think rape is a real problem where they live. They may not have had anyone tell their story, or they may not choose to believe what happened was, in fact, sexual assault.  This is problematic because when we ignore a problem we lose the opportunity to provide help for the victims and we lose the chance to change the conditions that lead to the assault.  So what I’m going to do are use statistical analogies to show that even if you think you don’t know someone who is a victim of sexual assault, you probably do.

[Statistics disclaimer – I am not a demographer and what I’m about to do will probably make them grate their teeth. If you are a demographer and want to redo these stats correctly I’ll be happy to update. That being said these are ballpark estimations]

I’m stating off with data from the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, which estimates that 1 in 6 women will be the victim of sexual assault. That works out to be 16.67% of the female population. (incidentally it also works out to one sexual assault every two minutes, which is nauseating when I consider how long it has taken me to write this post).

About .6% of the population is allergic to peanuts. Assuming no differences between genders that means that for every woman you know who is allergic to peanuts 27 have been victims of sexual assault


About 5% of women are left-handed. So for every southpaw woman you know, you probably know around three victims of sexual assault


About 6% of people have some form of Gluten sensitivity, so for every woman who passes on bread and beer you probably know between 2 and 3 women who have been victims


Lastly, about 1-2% of people are allergic to eggs, let’s split the difference, so for every one you know, you also know 14 women who have been sexually assaulted.


So you can see based on these rough estimates even if a victim chooses to not come forward to you about what she has gone through, she is out there. Your words and your actions have power and I urge you to think about how you use that power.

When someone makes a joke about rape, says “yeah, but did you see what she was wearing” or says “things like that don’t happen in this neighborhood” those words sting, they hurt the victim, and they diminish us as a society.  If you have been sexually assaulted, please talk to someone. If you know someone who has been assaulted, be supportive, and if you hear someone perpetuating rape culture, call them out on that. Take a stand and lend your voice. 

[Note, these pictures are all CC BY-NC 3.0, so feel free to use them to help spark discussions – credit and linking would be appreciated but not necessary]


  1. Kate Clancy says:

    Thanks so much for writing this, friend and ally :). I just wanted to add, I think what complicates this whole thing is that the media tends to depict all acts of assault as — to use your own word — an act of “brutality.” But they aren’t always brutal, violent, or especially physical. There are many ways to make a person freeze or feel unable to say no without physical violence. And because the majority of sexual assault is from someone you know, and because so many of those don’t involve severe physical violence, it makes it even harder for the victim to figure out how to shout her story or come forward. It’s easy to second-guess a woman who has been emotionally abused into having nonconsensual sex in our culture.

    So I think more honest representations of assault, more appreciation of gray areas, and more listening projects will do a lot to raise awareness.

    Thanks again.

  2. I really appreciate this. As a survivor of rape and intimate partner violence, I struggle a lot with how open to be about my past, especially on places like twitter or professional settings. If I had it my way I would talk about it freely because it needs to be talked about, and I want to use my experiences to help others however I can. But on the other hand I know very well what the consequences of speaking out can be. Even in the most benign of circumstances non-survivors tend not to want to hear about it; it’s TMI, it’s too personal, it’s unprofessional to talk about. But those who try to avoid hearing about sexual assault are complicit in rape culture, so I really appreciate it when anyone, survivor or not, opens channels to talk about this really important thing.

  3. This is a great way to put things in perspective. Well done.

  4. Stacy says:

    Great Post! The comparisons to allergies and left handedness are really eye opening. I very much agree with you, the more people discuss their experiences the more victims will feel empowered to discuss their experience as well. I recently told my story of molestation to a lecture hall full of students, and while some people might have been surprised, I know there were many in the class that had similar experiences in the past, and maybe even a few who were going through similar situations in the present.

  5. Kalmia says:

    Thank you Josh.

    Kate makes an excellent point, the act in question is not always violent. My incidents were not life-threatening, and I hesitate at the thought of calling myself a survivor. But the more I think of how the incidents have shaped my life, my relationships, and my mental health, I think of how much I’ve struggled and realize I am a survivor. Kara also brings up a good point, it can be very, very hard to be open when you don’t know if someone will blame you or simply considers it TMI.

    Also, while 1 in 6 is a lot, I would have guessed it was higher.

  6. labroides says:

    Kate – these are excellent points. I think I could have done a better job explaining that sexual assault is not just the stereotypical physical assault by a stranger. RAINN notes that approximately 2/3 of perpetrators are known to the victims. And in some ways this familiarity can make reporting a much more difficult narrative for people to deal with. Thanks for bringing this up!

  7. labroides says:

    Thanks Kara, these are powerful statements. On a personal level it’s encouraging for me (and other allies) to hear we’re doing the right thing and not getting into other people’s business.

  8. labroides says:

    It’s this insidious nature of sexual assault that I find really disturbing. That the impacts linger and can manifest themselves for years or decades after the initial act. The 1 in 6 was scary as was, statistically speaking 45 sexual assaults took place in the time it took me to write this post.

  9. labroides says:

    I really applaud your courage to tell your story. I know it couldn’t have been easy, but I know that in doing so you’re helping victims in the audience know they’re not alone and lowering the barriers to them getting help. Thank you!

  10. labroides says:

    Thank you very much!

  11. 1 in 6 is scary, and for college women it’s even higher. Last I checked, 1/5 to 1/4 of college women will be sexually assaulted at some point. I imagine this has particular resonance for those of you who are professors when you think about how many women you’ve had as students and how many of those have been or will be sexually assaulted.

  12. anonymous says:

    While I was in grad school back in 1979, I had a friend walk me home after we had been drinking. He asked if he could come in and relieve himself. My live-in boyfriend was out of town and this guy asked if he could spend the night since he was too drunk to drive home and my boyfriends bed was available. He had spent the night before on our couch so I thought nothing of it and said sure. That night he forced himself on me. I did not fight him off because once before a guy wanted sex and I had refused – he beat me up instead and in my mind nothing was worth getting beaten up like that again. I was no longer a virgin so I thought it wouldn’t matter.
    Back then when I sought help I was told it was a matter of he said/she said and there was no case. What hurt the most was being told I was not raped since I was living with a man I was not married too society would view me as a whore and whores dont get raped. I had to grin and bear it. So I kept silent about it and never said a thing to my boyfriend, but after that sex was no longer bearable and it caused me to self destruct my relationship with him since I blamed my boyfriend for creating the situation that lead to being considered a whore. By the end of the quarter I broke up wigh my boyfriend even though I thought he was the love of my life at that time. He had no clue as to the real reason I broke up with him; but I mainly needed time to pull myself together. My advisor told me if he really loved me he’d be miserable and would want me back. He never wanted me back even though we remained friends. It took years before I could enjoy sex again and in hind sight it did work out for the best.

  13. labroides says:

    I am honored that you would share your story with us here. It is a powerful one and I hope it can help other victims to understand that help is available. I hope that we’ve moved forward as a society so that today’s grad students don’t have to go through what you did (although I’m not so sure….)

  14. a jones says:

    hmmmmm….. saw joshs post on fb got me thinking…. first expeience an assault, at 14. just another kid, probably as screwed up as i was back then. we were drunk and high. i was already spiraling when it happened and it just made things even worse. did a lot of self destructive things… identified myself as “rape victim” for years…. so much has changed. normal life, good job, husband, kids…. i think doing volunteer work for rcc in college helped, plus having children puts things in perspective. god made me stubborn and i thank him for it. i do forgive the guy that did it, like i said we were both just kids… now i work in a prison and some of my patients are in there for rape but i am able to compartmentalize it and treat them as humans. funny as a kid i thought about the assault every day, i hardly think about it at all anymore. it was a long road but there is light at the other side.

  15. labroides says:

    I can’t tell you how happy this makes me to read. That was a really rough time, as your friend it was tough to see you go through it, and I really had no idea how to help. They just don’t teach those kinds of skills, and honestly that’s part of what Fault Line deals with. How lack of education can worsen things b/c the victim’s friends are ill prepared to offer help. This can often lead to further feelings of isolation. I’m so glad you’re doing well now!

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