Sexual assault has been in the news around here lately. UNM got a big visit and analysis by a law firm, which raised a number of questions. How much does this happen here? Who are the perpetrators? Do we have too many policies? Are the policies clear? Does the campus have enough lighting? Do people get attacked on campus or off?
These are important questions about an issue that deserves attention. But they are only part of the picture, questions of a systemic nature. I want to bring it to a more personal level. What if it happens to you? What if it happened already?
Unwanted sexual contact can range from advances to violent rape with many traumatic scenarios in between. It is always emotionally wounding, and sometimes physically damaging as well. The emotional impact can range from temporary annoyance to lifelong debilitating trauma.
According to New Mexico Rape Crisis Center, one in four women and one in 20 men will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. Nobody really knows the statistics of other kinds of unwanted sexual contact, but it is common knowledge that the actual incidence of sexual assault exceeds the formal reporting statistics. In other words, most people don’t tell.
Why don’t people tell? There are many reasons for this. Maybe you aren’t sure if what you experienced “counts” as sexual assault. Maybe you were drunk at the time. Or maybe you were interested in some physical intimacy but didn’t want it to go as far as it did. Or maybe you were passed out or drugged and don’t remember what happened or if anything happened. If the person who violated you — and I’m using the word in the broadest sense — is someone you know, an acquaintance or a friend, or even a partner. Perhaps you worry about his or her reaction or about getting him or her in trouble. Maybe you think you won’t be believed if you report it, or you’re afraid you’ll be subjected to a humiliating exam or blamed for what happened to you. Or maybe you think you should just suck it up and get over it, that it wasn’t really that big a deal.
All of these, and more, are familiar scenarios and natural reactions, but I want to encourage you to think differently. It is never okay for another person to touch you in a way that you don’t want. Never. Your body belongs to you alone. It doesn’t matter if you were drunk, or if you responded and then changed your mind, or what you were wearing or where you were walking. Nobody has the right to touch you without your permission.
You can take some steps to minimize the chance of sexual assault happening to you. Avoid risky situations, and keep your head about you. Do be careful about where you go and when, and be smart about who you spend time with and what you put in your body that might affect your mind.
Sometimes you do all that and still something happens. If so, please tell someone. At the very least, tell a friend or family member. Better yet, tell a professional. There are three kinds of professionals you should consider in this situation.
1. Medical professional. This person can treat your injuries and can also evaluate and treat you for diseases you might have caught. If you are a woman who was assaulted by a man, a medical professional can help you assess your risk of pregnancy and make decisions about that. In Albuquerque, there is an organization called SANE, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners. This is what they do 24/7 and they are exceptionally good at it. You can find SANE online at www.abqsane.org or by calling (505) 884-SANE (7263) any time day or night. SANE can also do evidence collection for forensics in case of legal involvement. I recommend you don’t change clothes or shower before you see the SANE nurses, so that they can collect evidence. You can always decide later about pressing charges, but you can’t go back and collect evidence once it is gone.
2. Mental health professional. This person can help you work through the emotional fallout of being violated. People have all kinds of reactions, but nobody is unscathed. It’s best to seek out this emotional support right away, but sometimes you don’t realize the extent of the emotional damage until later. Better late than never. In Albuquerque, a stellar resource is the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico. Go to www.rapecrisiscnm.org or call the hotline (505) 266-7711.
3. Legal professional. If you are in immediate danger, 911 should be your first call. Likewise if you want to get the law involved right away to file charges or make an arrest. If you aren’t sure, you can always simply talk to an officer about your options. If you don’t want to go straight to the police, like if you aren’t sure whether you’ll be pressing charges or not, talk to the professionals at the organizations listed above. They can advise you how to proceed.
It is my dearest hope that your body, mind, heart and soul stay safe and healthy and that you never need this information. Take care.
Dr. Peggy Spencer is a physician at Student Health and Counseling and UNM Center for Life. She is also co-author of the book “50 Ways to Leave Your 40s.” Email your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be considered, and questioners will remain anonymous.