Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2021: Promoting Sexual Health, Setting Boundaries, and Supporting Survivors

Community health sciences expert discusses the importance of open communication with sexual partner(s), affirmative consent, and how to stand with survivors this month and beyond.

By Katherine Gianni

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, on average, there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. April 2021 marks the official 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, an annual campaign aimed to raise public awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence, educate communities on how to prevent it at all levels, and remove the stigma that often surrounds sexual abuse. People across the country are encouraged to embrace their voices, show support for survivors, and speak out if they have experienced sexual assault themselves.

In recognition of the month-long campaign, we spoke to Emily Rothman, a Boston University School of Public Health professor of community health sciences and a leading researcher of intimate partner violence, to learn more about how to have open communication with your sexual partner(s), the importance of affirmative consent, and free resources for survivors.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

How can you effectively communicate personal boundaries about your sexual activity with your partner(s)? What is important to keep in mind?

Be brave, direct and honest with your partner. Communicate early in the relationship, and often, about sexual boundaries — particularly because they may change over time or even day to day. In general, as soon as the relationship becomes sexual — or even right before — start talking about what works for you and what doesn’t. A back-and-forth, in-person conversation is best, however, if you absolutely cannot bring yourself to communicate verbally with your partner about sex acts, written communication works fine, too.

Before you can communicate your own boundaries, it does help to check in with yourself and think about what is usually always okay with you (i.e., sexual things you like), what is never okay with you (i.e., the stuff that is off limits), and things that are sometimes okay in certain situations or with the right partners, but maybe require extra set-up or extra communication. It’s fine to not know how you feel about certain sexual acts — but the fact that you may not be up for those things is important information to express to your partner(s). That said, it’s never alright for someone to charge ahead and try out new sex acts with you if you haven’t given it a clear, unequivocal yes.

It is important to keep in mind that everyone is different, and you can’t tell what someone is into sexually from looking at them or even spending time with them in non-sexual contexts. You cannot assume from what someone is wearing, or how they act in non-sexual situations, that they are or are not going to enjoy certain types of sex. You have to start from scratch with everyone, ask them what works for them, and build up your knowledge of who they are sexually as you get into the relationship.

How can people practice safer sex, whether in a monogamous relationship, or with casual partners?

Often ‘safer sex’ is a term that people use to refer to having sex that is lower risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but I like to think about it as also including sex that is lower risk for non-consensual behavior. How can people have safer sex? By talking, by listening actively, and not only relying on non-verbal cues about whether something is okay. If you are a quiet and shy person in sexual contexts, this can be really tough. It can be embarrassing for some people to need to ask “Do you have a condom?” or “Is this feeling good to you?” but there really isn’t a great way around it: words are important. Use your words. If you are in a polyamorous relationship or have multiple sexual partners, the pressure is on you to refine communication skills, as well. There is no way around it: complete honesty is the best way to practice ethical non-monogamy.

Photo by Justin Follis on Unspalsh.

What is affirmative consent?

Affirmative consent is when all parties involved in a sexual encounter give clear permission regarding willingness to engage in the sexual activity. It must be unequivocal. And, importantly, it can be withdrawn at any time during the sex act. That’s why apps that try to get people to sign off on consent to sex before sex happens do not make sense — you can agree to have sex and you are allowed to change your mind. Consent has to be continuous.

What steps can an individual take if they or someone they know is a survivor of sexual violence?

The most important thing to do is to ask them what they want to have happen next. If you know someone who is a victim — or a ‘survivor,’ which is a preferred term by many — tell them that you support them, that you believe them, and that you are there for them no matter what they want to have happen next. They may not want to report it to anyone, which is okay. Do not pressure them into that. They are the expert on their own situation and their own survival and your job is to let them be in control of their own healing.

If they seem to be suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms, you can offer to look up counseling resources with them and offer to accompany them to an appointment if they wish — but they might say no, and that is also okay. Your job is to accept what they want. For Boston University students, a great place to start in terms of support is the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center (SARP). The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center also has a hotline where supporters of survivors can get advice and help here.

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash.

In one of your recent studies you report that porn is one of the top sources of sex education for young adults. Based on your findings, does this contribute to unhealthy attitudes about sexual consent, intimacy, or dating violence amongst adolescents?

Sexually explicit media, or porn, is not the worst thing in the world — no moral panicking or pearl clutching here — but, it’s also not intended to be an instruction manual for how to have good, or even passable, sex with a partner. What people do in porn is for show, to make money. If you try out some of the stuff you see in mainstream porn — like slapping someone, choking them, ejaculating on their face, anal sex- — without consistent and clear communication about exactly what you are going to do and if it’s okay and what the safe word is — it isn’t going to feel good and it isn’t going to make your partner think you are good at sex. Yes, some people enjoy rough sex, but typically practitioners of kink (i.e., BDSM practitioners) will have sought out information about how to do it safely, gone to workshops, connected with a BDSM/kink community, and follow safe practice guidelines. College students and other young people who see some porn and decide, based on that, to slap their partner, or choke them, or make them gag, are making a huge mistake. You need to have a full-scale conversation about whether those things are okay with someone ahead of time, before the sexual encounter begins.

Do you have any advice for how to talk with a new partner about past sexual trauma?

I think it’s worth it to bring this up early in a sexual relationship. This may be counterintuitive, but it doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation. When you first start getting intimate with someone, you can give them some instructions about your own personal needs to the extent you know them. This is just an example, but you could say something like: “Okay, before we get deeper into this, a fact about me — I had a pretty awful sexual experience at one point in my past. I don’t love talking about it or thinking about it, and I don’t want to answer questions about it right now, but I just wanted to give you the heads up that sometimes I can space out or cry during sex. If that happens, give me a two minute break without touching me and I’ll let you know what to do next.” Ideally, a new partner will be willing to roll with that, but it is possible they may need a minute to process the information. By the way, the vast majority of sexual assault survivors are able to enjoy fulfilling sex lives — so the idea that survivors are ‘damaged’ or that they all suffer from post-traumatic stress chronically is wrong. Sexual assault survivors can have fantastic sex lives and can be great sexual partners.

What are common indicators of an unhealthy or abusive relationship that can often be overlooked?

What you want to look for are any controlling behaviors. Unhealthy and abusive relationships are often about one person wanting all — or most of — the power in the relationship so you will often see that showing up in small ways in the beginning. For example, if they seem to need to be in control of the conversation, or decisions about where to go and what to do, or seem jealous of you having other friends or other plans, all of those are warning signs that this person may have ‘control issues,’ and control issues are often at the heart of abusive relationships.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Professor Rothman on Twitter @EmRothman. For news and research updates from the BU School of Public Health follow @BUSPH.

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