Myths busted II: Yes, that also counts as sexual violence

1. People can consent to sex when they are intoxicated, asleep, under the effect of drugs, in a situation of danger.

As someone cannot verbally or physically affirm their desire to take part in a sexual activity when they are not conscious they (logically) can’t consent. Even if they had consented earlier, or had consented a previous time, they cannot consent in that moment and therefore any sexual contact would be a crime.

2. When someone gets drunk and they are sexually assaulted, it was their fault.

See above. No. Instigating sexual contact, of any kind, with someone who is not able to consent is never ok (and generally illegal). Someone’s decision to get drunk does not change that fact. Alcohol consumption is legal in the United Kingdom, and in most European countries, for anyone over the age of 18, and people have the right to consume or not consume it as they see appropriate. Yet sexual assault and alcohol consumption are two very separate things: one does not negate the other, or excuse it, in anyway.

3. Touching people sexually without their permission, unwanted sexting, publishing their nude or sexual pictures or videos online is not abuse, it’s just banter.

Online abuse has sadly become increasingly common and has nothing to do with fun and innocent banter. It is a violent and vilifying act, and, legally, a crime. Survivors of cyber-abuse often struggle with long-term mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts. If ever you survived any of these experiences, you are incredibly brave and resilient, and support is available for you.

4. Men cannot be sexually abused.

Unfortunately, people of any gender and sexual orientation can be, and are assaulted and abused. The assumption that ‘true men do not get themselves raped’ is terribly harmful and makes the healing process of those self-identifying men who experienced sexual abuse even more challenging. Abuse is never the abused person’s fault, and gender-based stereotypes truly damage us all.

5. There is no abuse in LGBT+ relationships. Women cannot abuse each other.

Sadly sexual abuse can happen in many different context and self-identifying women can abuse as well as men (even though male violence on women currently counts for a great part of sexual assault cases). This means it is vital to understand and practice consent in any kind of relationship.

6. Assault only happens in dark streets at night. One can only be assaulted by strangers.

Most cases of assaults today happen in a domestic context, and the assaulter is someone the abused person knew. Too many survivors take years to realise that what they went through (for example, being forced into unwanted sex by an ex-partner) was a form of sexual abuse. Importantly, no abuse or assault is more or less serious or damaging than another, and all survivors need to be taken seriously and deserve the utmost support.

7. A sexual abuse that, for whatever reason, is not persecuted in a court is not real.

Sexual assault is a crime, and a serious one. However, some cases of sexual violence are difficult to persecute in court: perhaps because they happened a long time ago, the abuser was under-age, or evidence difficult to produce. The legal notion of assault varies from country to country, and some survivors also prefer not to go through the painful, and expensive, experience of a trial.

Again, they deserve everyone’s respect and support whatever their choice. While it is our duty to build a fair legal system and a healthy consent culture to tackle sexual violence in our society, we should remember that assaults that are not persecuted in the court are nonetheless real and profoundly traumatic experience. So are sexual encounters that may not qualify as assaults under a country’s legislation, but entail lack of consent from one side.

8. Sexual assault can be blamed on what the assaulted person was wearing.

Sexual violence has little to do with sexual attraction, and much to do with power and control. Men (or anyone, for that matter) cannot be ‘provoked’ or ‘lured’ into assaulting someone. People of every gender and sexual orientation, race and class get violated, in different times and spaces and independently of what they were wearing. This is a terrible truth we need to change by building a healthy culture of consent. Which starts by understanding that no abuse is EVER, on any account, the abused person’s fault.

9. If you bring someone back with you from a night out you’re giving them the green light for sex. If you make that decision you should deal with the consequences (aka: you can’t share a bed with someone and NOT have sex. That’s just impossible.).

We’ll repeat it again. And again. Sexual partners should consent freely to ANY activity they engage in. Going back home with someone, or sleeping in the same bed, does not mean we are consenting to sex, even if that person is our long-term romantic partner. And consenting to a certain sexual practice does not mean consenting to others, or that we’ll always do so. People ALWAYS have the right to say no, change their mind, and stop at any moment.

10. Sex in a relationship is never abusive.

Sadly even people who love us, or say they do, can harm us and violate our physical, sexual and emotional boundaries. Long-term partners, in the context of heterosexual as well as LGBT+ relationships, can be sexually abusive. This include forcing or pressuring their partners into any kind of unwanted sexual activities with themselves or others, and sharing sexual pictures or videos of them without their consent. Love never justifies violence or abuse, and, unfortunately, abusive partners tend to be recidivists (return to the abusive behavior multiple times). Many forms of support are available for those who wish to come out of abusive relationships, and techniques to learn to understand and communicate with our partners regarding our sexual and emotional needs can be learned (look at our piece on how to express/identify consent!).

11. Being sexually abused is shameful for the abused person.

Most emphatically not. Abusing, raping, assaulting is shameful and criminal behavior. On the contrary, surviving any of the above means you went through something terrible, but have been brave, resilient and strong enough to survive. Nothing of what happened to you was ever your fault.

12. It is OK to pressure LGBTQ+ people into heterosexual sex to ‘make them normal’.

There is a common misconception that peope’s sexual orientation can be changed or “normalised”, or that people can be ‘turned’ by sex. This is not the case. For many LGBTQ+ people, it can feel like everyone is expected to be straight. A 2012 survey by the Human Rights Campaign found that 92% of LGBTQ+ teens had heard negative things about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and the pressures to conform to a certain set of heteronormative parameters undoubtedly feed into this uneasiness.

It is never ok to pressure anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, into an act they are not comfortable with. And it is wrong to try and change someone who experiences desires or attractions that are completely normal and personal to them.

This course has been created by GenPol, a think-tank on gender and politics based at the University of Cambridge, in cooperation with Serlo.

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