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Our Narrow View of Sexual Assault Is Letting People Get Away With It

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

Sexual assault doesn't necessarily involve physical contact — or someone famous

In an article published last week, five women went on the record to The New York Times accusing comedian Louis C.K. of masturbating in front of them without their consent. This was sexual assault.

The same thing has happened to me — also with someone I knew in a professional context. So why, like the women who came forward in Thursday’s article, did I not get up and leave the room? Because I was in shock, and I froze. When someone does something so unexpected and revolting, your brain kicks into survival mode — mine did, at least — and I rationalized staying because if he was capable of doing this, who knows what he’d try to do next or how he might retaliate if I left.

After all, he made it very clear this was my fault. He gave me the option of having sex with him, I refused, and, according to his twisted logic, the “least” I could do was stand there as he took care of things himself. I remember thinking in the moment that at least I knew there was a clear ending to this. He would come and I could go. He did, I left, and we never spoke of it again.

More: Reminder: Vagina Is Not a Dirty Word

Immediately following the incident and for a while after, I couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt and shame, constantly questioning if he had been right — that this was in some way my fault. But like women are conditioned to do, I compartmentalized and repressed this memory as a coping mechanism, eventually giving myself permission to move past it. And for the most part it worked — until I read the five women’s accounts in the Times piece.

Fame not required

Although perpetrators like C.K. that make headlines have primarily come from Hollywood and comedy circles, make no mistake: Plenty of men with no ties to the entertainment industry whatsoever have pulled this same maneuver. Men forcing others to watch them masturbate without their consent is rooted in power and privilege; sometimes fame is also a component, but not necessarily. Regardless of status, it is important to remember that this happens to people all the time in cases where the assailant is not a public figure and therefore is of no interest to the media if the victims were to go public. Our experiences are just as horrific and valid.

In this situation, consent is especially tricky. Perpetrators like C.K. reportedly asked his victims before taking out his penis and masturbating in front of them. But agreeing to this — or, perhaps more accurately, saying and doing nothing — should never be conflated with genuine consent. As C.K. said in his statement on Friday acknowledging the crimes, “[W]hen you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn't a question. It's a predicament for them.” It’s also sexual assault.

Why this happens

The problem is not everyone sees it that way. Typically, when we think of sexual assault, we immediately jump to some sort of penetration — or at least touching. And if that doesn’t occur — as is the case when someone masturbates in front of another person — it tends to be overlooked, downplayed and even more underreported than rape and other sex crimes.

More: Harvey Weinstein's Alleged Sex Crimes Brought Back Memories of My Own Harassment

“This is representative of the Western world’s hyper-focus on physical contact as the primary way to experience sexuality,” Shadeen Francis, a marriage and family therapist specializing in sex therapy and social justice explains. “Considering our often limited definitions of sex and our phallocentric (penis-focused) culture, many experiences of harm go unreported and the pains of victims are ignored and invalidated.” 

However, in the mental health profession, Patti Sabla, a psychotherapist who specializes in treating sexual trauma, says this particular act isn’t placed in a different category than other sexual assaults; it is taken very seriously because they realize the detrimental effects it can have on the victim.

Similarly, according to Dr. Adam Fried, a clinical psychologist, this type of sexual misconduct may share certain similarities with — but is not necessarily the same as — a psychological condition known as exhibitionistic disorder. In this disorder, a person derives sexual gratification from exposing themselves to an unsuspecting — and therefore non-consenting — victim (who may or may not know the perpetrator).

“In the past, these had been categorized by many as a type of ‘nuisance’ offense, which is an unfortunate terminology, as these seem to downplay the magnitude of these actions,” Fried explains. “I think it's critical to recognize that these experiences are much more than simply a ‘nuisance’ or inconvenience and can lead to significant distress among victims of these acts.”

Fried adds that what he finds most surprising is how many individuals report being the victim of these types of behaviors.

“Recent research suggests exhibitionistic experiences likely occur much more frequently than previously thought and that these incidents are usually not reported,” he says. “Victims may report feeling violated, disgusted and fearful.”

It’s not your fault

Being a victim can make us feel helpless, Sabla explains, which can conjure up feelings of guilt and shame because we begin to think we either caused it to happen or could have prevented it from happening — that we somehow put ourselves in the situation.

Francis tells me that my reaction was completely normal, since a natural response is to first think of our personal responsibility to our safety. This later manifests itself in all the questions about whether I could have prevented this or seen it coming and wondering what I did to deserve this. On top of that, she says, many perpetrators reinforce these questions by making excuses for or justifying their abuse. The guilt and shame come in because “women are held responsible for purity and warding off sexual advances from anyone who pursues them,” Francis explains.

And although most of the accusers in the news have been women, we’re not exclusively the victims. As Francis points out, the abuse of gender nonconforming, trans or gender non-binary people is largely erased from conversation, and men who have been sexually assaulted are “shamed into silence” because this type of attack is framed “as a result of their own weakness or lack of masculine power.” 

More: Why Terry Crews Talking About Being Sexually Assaulted Is a Game-Changer

How to process & move forward from this

If there is one thing I will take away from working on this article, it’s that this particular type of sexual assault is, unfortunately, incredibly common. Almost every woman I’ve spoken to about this has her own very similar story. I’m disgusted that so many others have experienced this, but by talking about it with them, I feel less alone — but still angry.

According to Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist, exploring these feelings in a setting where you’re not rejected or judged can be therapeutic along with knowing you have every right to feel upset and guilty.

“Shame survives on silence and secrets and is linked to lowered self-esteem, depression and negative self-talk,” Francis adds.

The mental health professionals I spoke to recommend talking about what happened with a trusted friend, family member or mentor and to see a therapist if needed. In addition to that, Francis says victims may also want to consider making a report to a domestic violence organization or their local police.

Also know that it’s not you — it’s them. “The most important thing is to not get caught up in your own story that you did something wrong or somehow caused this to happen,” Sabla says.

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