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?

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?

Photo by Justin Follis on Unspalsh.

What is affirmative consent?

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

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?

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

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

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.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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