When Your Consent is Taken Away

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.

Almost a year and a half ago, Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” 24 hours later, there were more than 500,000 responses. 12 months later, the hashtag was estimated to have been tweeted over 18 million times. The #MeToo movement has caught people’s attention worldwide, yet sexual assault continues to be a difficult topic. Although uncomfortable to discuss, it is prevalent and life-altering, and worthy of our attention and dialogue. I write this post in line with April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign to raise public awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities on how to prevent it.

In my initial research for this blog post, I found some staggering statistics I would like to include:

  • Approximately eight out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim
  • More than half of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance.
  • A forcible rape occurs every 6.2 minutes within the United States.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) have been raped at some time in their lives
  • Most female victims of completed rape (79.6%) experienced their first rape before the age of 25, and 42.2% before the age of 18.
  • More than 1 in 4 male victims of completed rape (27.8%) experienced their first rape when they were 10 years of age or younger.

Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Let’s discuss the basics of sexual assault. The term “sexual assault” refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some examples of sexual assault include attempted rape; fondling or unwanted sexual touching; forcing a victim to perform sexual acts; penetration of the victim’s body; sexual intercourse against a person’s will; forcible sodomy (anal or oral sex against a person’s will); forcible object penetration; marital rape; sexual contact with minors, whether consensual or not; incest; or any unwanted or coerced sexual contact.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age, gender, race, and socioeconomic background. It can happen at any time or place. Assailants may be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family members, and they may use violence, threats, coercion, manipulation, or other forms of pressure or deception to commit sexual assault.

Not all sexual assault is rape, but rape is one of the more well-known forms of sexual assault,. For its Uniform Crime Reports, the FBI defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” This can be done in one of three ways; the first is called a “blitz” sexual assault, which is when a perpetrator quickly and brutally assaults the victim with no prior contact, often at night in public.  The second is called “contact sexual assault”, and is when a perpetrator tries to gain their victim’s trust by flirting, luring the victim to their car, or otherwise trying to coerce the victim into a situation where the sexual assault will occur. The third type of rape is a home invasion sexual assault–when a stranger breaks into the victim’s home to commit the assault.

Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

The distinguishing line between sexual assault and consensual sexual activity is just that: CONSENT. Consent is a voluntary, sober, enthusiastic, informed, mutual, honest and verbal agreement. It is an active agreement that cannot be coerced. Consent is a process which must be asked for every step of the way. Consent is never implied and cannot be assumed, even in a relationship; simply dating a person does not give the right to sexual interactions. Legally, an intoxicated person cannot give consent!

Survivors of sexual assault often blame themselves for somehow behaving in a way that encouraged the perpetrator. When your consent is forcefully taken away, it is not your fault. I cannot possibly stress this enough: The victim is never to blame for the actions of the perpetrator! In my experience as a clinician, guilt is a feeling that each victim experiences during his/her healing process. Because of this, it is essential that victims get the appropriate and necessary treatment from a licensed, experienced therapist. I have treated numerous clients who have experienced sexual assault, and am equipped to help you or your loved one along this difficult yet beautiful path to healing. It is possible, and I am here for you. Please contact me today or click here to schedule a session.

Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


When #metoo Isn’t Enough: A Response

Metoo Campaign - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist

According to the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), each year 321,500 Americans 12 and older are sexually abused or raped. More than 60% of women are sexually assaulted in college and 88% of them do not report it. The prevalent #metoo movement filling our feeds begs the question–what now? What can be done to stop sexual harassment?

Recently, there has been an outpouring on social media of the hashtag #metoo. You may have wondered what it means, and its purpose. Harvey Weinstein, American film producer and co-founder of Miramax, was recently fired by his company’s board of directors following numerous allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. Over the weekend, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted out this hashtag as a call-out to victims “so we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The hashtag, #metoo, was created as a bold declarative statement that ‘I’m not ashamed of what I went through” and ‘I’m not alone’ , as well as a way to say–from survivor to survivor–‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you.'” This hashtag has gone viral; it has been tweeted and re-tweeted, posted and reposted, and received thousands of comments, from both men and women!

If Alyssa Milano’s intent of re-tweeting #metoo was to “give the people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” it is working! This movement has caught fire across our nation. Many are shocked to see their friend, classmate, neighbor, cousin, or family member post #metoo. The numbers are staggering; sexual abuse and sexual harassment have touched the lives of too many. The sheer quantity of #metoo posts filling our social media newsfeeds is absolutely alarming. According to RAINN, every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, and every eight minutes that victim is a child. This statistic takes my breath away.

To further understand the #metoo movement, I think it is important to understand the definitions of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Sexual abuse, or molestation, is unsolicited sexual behavior by one person toward another, often done repeatedly.  When the interaction is infrequent, or of short duration, it is called sexual assault. Beth’s story is sadly a common example of this: she and her boyfriend were watching a movie alone in her apartment, when cuddling led to kissing, kissing led to him carrying her back to her bedroom, where he forced himself upon her despite her persistent pleas to stop. Once he finished, he left her alone in the dark, feeling sweaty and dirty, where she justified his behavior by thinking she had not done enough to stop him.

Sexual harassment occurs in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, and involves unwelcomed sexual advances or obscene remarks, often by a person in authority toward a subordinate. Sara’s story exemplifies this: One day, during work at the retail supercenter, her boss approached her from behind and stuck his hand up her miniskirt. When Sara approached him to talk about the inappropriate placement of his hand, he advanced again, forcing her into the corner of his office. She fled the scene and lost her job.

The above abridged stories are only two of the many, many that exist. I share them not to invoke anger or to be triggering; I share them in the hope that it will empower–empower parents to teach their children, and for others to know that they are not alone and that it was not their fault. This movement has definitely served as a strength to so many women (and men) who have dealt with the repercussions of being sexual abused or harassed. But is solidarity enough? Is there more that can be done?

Admitting #metoo takes an incredible amount of courage. Many have never told anyone about their experience, and know that they may re-experience pain by recalling the memory.  By putting #metoo on your social media, you are adding credence to the significance of the problem. And to those of you who keep typing and deleting, #metoo, I see you. I understand where you are coming from. There is nothing wrong with not putting yourself out there and wanting to keep your experiences from the public eye of social media. Sharing your story with close family and friends can be just as powerful and important!

If you are not posting because you feel that what happened to you is not as significant as someone else, I would like to encourage you to reconsider. Your story is yours. What happened to you is no less significant because it is different than what you are reading on social media. My hope would be that by reading all of the #metoo posts, you will feel validated and not alone. I am certainly not saying that it is imperative for all victims of sexual harassment or abuse to share the hashtag, #metoo! What I am saying is that absolutely no amount of unwanted sexual advances or behavior is okay; regardless of “how far it got”, sexual assault or harassment, in any form, is wrong! Please do not invalidate your experience by thinking you are somehow to blame!

So we have said, read, or felt, #metoo. Now what? Yes, this movement has been striking and powerful, but we cannot let the momentum stop there. We need to act. I urge you to get involved in raising awareness so we can decrease the staggering statistics of those affected by sexual abuse. Here are some ideas:

  1. Speak out. On Thursday morning, the Chicago Tribune released an article urging men to speak out against sexual assault and harassment.  Women are not the only ones that are affected here! You have a voice. Within the realm of your comfort, speak out, speak up, and raise awareness.
  2. Share what you have read or experienced (to the degree that it is appropriate) with close friends and family members. Many people are not on social media; tell them what is going on around them and help them understand the implications of movements such as these.
  3. Teach your children about appropriate and inappropriate touch, and create a safe relationship where they feel comfortable asking any questions they may have.
  4. Listen to and support survivors. We all know someone who has been affected by sexual abuse or harassment. If someone comes to you saying they have been sexually mistreated, be there for them. Believe them first and ask questions later. It is astounding how many people around us have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Let us be a safe place for each other.
  5. Respect. Women and men do not like to be groped, receive cat-calls, or have certain body parts be the object of attraction. Operating like this means you are more likely to commit sexual harassment, assault, or rape–even if you think you are not capable of those horrors. Men and women need to stop objectifying each other!
  6. Advocate for better education and prevention. Meaningful, lasting change can happen through a series of  educational and institutional messages about prevention, and comprehensive training for staff and leadership. Holding one assembly at schools/campuses, or bringing in a single speaker isn’t enough to shift attitudes and behavior. Get involved in your community to improve education and prevention.

If you are one of the many people who typed, thought, or relate to the #metoo sentiment, please do not stop there. Now is the time to seek further healing. You do not need to do it alone. As a trained, experienced therapist, who has seen many clients in similar situations, I encourage you to honor yourself by seeking help and support. I urge you to not push this to the backburner. Get the help you need and deserve; schedule your first session with me today.

If you have experienced sexual assault, you can call the free, confidential, National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access 24-7 help online by visiting hotline.rainn.org.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Allure: “A Note to Survivors Who Aren’t Ready to Share Their Sexual Assaults”
CBS: “‘Me Too’ trend on Twitter raises awareness about sexual assault”
Chicago Tribune: “It’s time for men to join the chorus of voices speaking out against sexual assault”
Cluff Counseling:  “Are You are Secondary Survivor?”
Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
CNN: “An activist, a little girl and the heartbreaking origin of ‘Me too’”
Huffington Post: How To Respond If Your Partner Has Been Sexually Assaulted Or Harassed”
LiveYourDream.Org: “Understanding Domestic Violence: Facts and Figures”
Mashable: “5 crucial ways men can help end sexual assault”
RAINN Website
Refinery29: “Alyssa Milano Details What Needs To Change In Hollywood After Harvey Weinstein”
TSM: “Literally, Why Can’t I Say #MeToo?”
Wikipedia: “Harvey Weinstein”
Wikipedia: “Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations”
Wikipedia: “Sexual Abuse”