You see, despite its name, sexual assault isn’t about sex. It’s a way of using sex to establish power–which is why so many cases involve a violation of power by an authority figure.
Sexual assault is any type of sexual activity or contact that you do not consent to.
The perpetrator may use a range of tactics, from flattery to manipulation to humiliation to threats to physical force (or any combination thereof). The method does not matter–if words and/or actions of a sexual nature are imposed upon another person against that person’s will, it qualifies as sexual assault or sexual abuse.
Perpetrators can be almost anyone, but they’re most often someone that the victim knows.
Perpetrators quite often are people in positions of authority, such as:
Because these perpetrators are known and trusted in the community, they’re less likely to be suspected.
Many stories of sexual abuse contain the same basic narrative: someone in a position of power uses that position to perpetrate some sort of sexual abuses for purposes of control, manipulation, gratification or ego.
Sexual misconduct and assault arises most often in asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a dominant position relative to the victim. It can happen quickly and unexpectedly but quite often sexual misconduct starts with something minor or subtle and then it escalates.
Cases often involve men asserting power given to them simply by virtue of being male–90% of adult rape victims are female and 96% of women who report rape or sexual assault have male abusers. Female perpetrators are not unheard of, but they are far less common.
At a deeper level, though, the heart of assault and misconduct cases is abuse of power. And when that abuse comes from someone you turn to for help, the perpetrator has even greater power to make their victim feel helpless.
Doctors provide a classic illustration of sexual abuse by helping professionals (i.e. someone you turn to for a service with the implicit trust that they will make decisions in your best interest).
Let’s say, for example, that you visit a family physician to diagnose a urinary tract infection. That physician then uses the exam to touch you inappropriately, in ways that are in no way necessary to diagnose a UTI. When you ask why this touching is necessary, the doctor tells you to let them do their job and that they are the experts using their medical training and knowledge.
That’s exactly what happened to one patient who visited Dr. Ramon Fakhoury of California’s Inland Empire. Three other patients also reported that Fakhoury touched their genitals for no medical reason. It also happened on a large scale with Dr. Larry Nassar who abused hundreds of unsuspecting patients of all ages.
Doctors hold a significant amount of power over their patients and are granted access to their patients’ bodies to an extent afforded to few other professionals. Patients must trust that their doctor will only use that access in a manner appropriate for medical care.
When doctors violate that trust, they violate one of the most basic ethical tenets of medicine: do no harm.
In a medical exam, you have the right to:
If a doctor makes you uncomfortable or refuses any of these rights, they are crossing a line.
Law enforcement officers have a unique level of community power. The justice system works in part because law enforcement officers have the authority to do things that ordinary citizens don’t. But you have to be able to trust that officers are using that authority as part of the due process of law.
Let’s say, for example, that three teenagers are out driving late at night through a park. Plainclothes police officers stop them. The teenagers stop, because that’s what they’ve always been taught to do.
The officers want to know why the teenagers in the park after dark. They search the car and find marijuana and Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug. One of the three teenagers is arrested and taken to the officers’ car; the other two are told not to follow. They don’t.
One might logically assume that this story ends with the officers taking the arrested teenager to the police station under arrest for drug possession. That isn’t how this story ends.
This story, which occurred in New York City in 2017, ends with two officers from the Brooklyn South precinct sexually assaulting the arrested teenager (the only female of the group), threatening her with criminal charges if she didn’t cooperate. The officers later faced charges of rape, kidnapping, and official misconduct.
A national study of 500 officers arrested for sexual misconduct found that half of those cases involved on-duty misconduct. Those that occurred off-duty were often facilitated by the presence of an official service weapon or the power of a badge.
A second study found that more than half of officer arrests for sexual misconduct involved minors. Officers tend to prey on victims like the Brooklyn teenager in our example, though domestic violence victims were also common.
In short, officers target people who are unusually vulnerable, who think they won’t be believed if they come forward, or both.
When sexual assault is viewed as an act of violence, rather than sex, it becomes easier to see the connection between sexual assault and power.
We stated earlier that sexual assault is any type of sexual conduct or contact to which the victim does not consent. These situations require the perpetrator to gain the upper hand, whether they rely on coercion, manipulation, or outright force.
Basically, these perpetrators rely on the knowledge that they have greater power than their victim–and their victim knows it.
This is why so many stories of workplace sexual harassment, for example, often follow the same vein: a supervisor victimizing a subordinate. A similar narrative shows up outside of workplaces as well: someone in a position of power abusing someone with less power.
This is why many famous sexual assault and abuse cases involve abuse of power.
Catholic dioceses, for example, have paid more than $3.8 billion to settle claims of sexual assault by clergy since the 1980s.
In May 2018, Michigan State University reached a $500 million settlement with 332 victims of Larry Nassar in his roles as a USA Gymnastics national team doctor and osteopathic physician at Michigan State.
As of November 2017, Penn State University paid $100 million in settlements for sexual assaults committed by Jerry Sandusky, which occurred in part because of the privileges and access Sandusky received as an assistant football coach.
Perpetrators often get away with assault because of societal reinforcement. In a culture that disdains vulnerability and views violence as an appealing expression of power, sexual assault remains on the table as a way for perpetrators to use power over others.
When you take a closer look at the law surrounding sexual misconduct and sexual assault, you can spot the same pattern.
Certain laws exist to prohibit sexual conduct between people in certain relationships. The rationale is always the same: because of the nature of that relationship, the victim is in some way under the perpetrator’s influence or authority, which means the victim cannot truly consent.
Common examples of such relationships include:
The same basic premise applies to statutory rape laws.
These laws prohibit sex with minors under the age of consent. Sexual assault laws relating to adults usually cover sexual conduct that was forced onto one party without their consent, whether that force was physical or emotionally coercive.
Under statutory rape laws, no force is required to be in violation of the law, because these laws are premised on the notion that young adults under the age of consent are not mature enough to make informed decisions and truly offer consent.
These laws also specifically outlaw relationships between adults and minors in their care, such as teachers and students.
The pattern is the same: because minors cannot give informed consent, they remain under the influence of the other party. There is a fundamental imbalance of power. And when the person in power uses it to pursue sexual relationships, they are violating that power.
Perpetrators of sexual assault are all good at one thing: making their victims feel powerless.
But victims do have the power to take control of their own narrative.
Our firm takes pride in helping victims of sexual assault and abuse through trying times. We know that recovery is a long and difficult process, which is why we fight to get you the justice you deserve.
If you need to speak with an attorney about your options, click here to schedule your free consultation.