College students remain confused about the definition of sexual assault

As awful as the recent flood of sexual assault stories have been, there remains hope that this may turn out to be a teachable moment for our society. The first and most obvious lesson is that sexual assault and harassment are far more prevalent than many of us might have liked to believe, and people need to speak up about it and assure justice for the victims through the judicial system wherever possible. And that’s not just a subject for the victims. Too many people were apparently aware that it was going on and similarly said nothing.

But we also clearly need some additional education on what exactly constitutes the various crimes under discussion. This article from back in April of this year at USA Today highlights the lack of awareness among many younger folks when it comes to sexual assault. Unfortunately, the author comes at the subject from precisely the wrong direction and winds up promulgating more bad information.

Overall, most young people in the U.S. are well aware of what acts qualify as sexual violence and sexual assault, a new study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) found.

Most young people realize that acts like sexual intercourse without a partner’s consent (84%) and unwanted touching, groping or fondling (83%) constitute sexual assault.

Most also understand that sex trafficking (77%); child pornography (77%) and incest (78%) fall under the umbrella of sexual assault.

So far so good. It’s hopefully clear that raping someone (having any sort of sexual intercourse or contact when they don’t want you to do so) is sexual assault and should result in criminal charges. But it doesn’t need to even go that far. Grabbing someone or even just intentionally touching them in a sexual fashion or conveying a plausible threat of same without their permission is indeed assault. Because that’s one of the cornerstone definitions of “assault.” You either initiate unwanted contact or put the person in reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact.

Unfortunately, this is the point where the article goes off the rails and feeds into some common misconceptions among young people on this subject.

But young adults are less likely than older adults to view other inappropriate or indecent acts as sexual violence.

  • Only 46% of adults surveyed, between the ages of 18-34, see uncalled-for verbal sexual comments as sexual assault.
  • 56% say watching someone in a private act without their knowledge is sexual assault.
  • Just 61% of young adults surveyed said pressure to engage in sexual intercourse was indeed a form of sexual assault, as compared to 87% of adults 55 years or older.
  • While 82% of older adults believed sex with someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs is an act of sexual assault, just 64% of young people said the same thing.

It’s commentary like that which no doubt confuses a lot of people, particularly on college campuses. All of those items have massive gray areas to say the least. “Uncalled for verbal sexual comments” can fall into a number of categories, most of which comprise “speech” and not “assault.” In order for a comment to come close to that line it would need to convey reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact. Somebody walking past you and calling out, “Nice ass!” or something similar is engaged in sexual harassment, not assault. Still boorish and unacceptable, and possibly a crime (depending on where you live) but not assault, which is a more serious charge.

As far as “watching someone in a private act” goes, it’s again situational. If you’re peeping in on any space where the victim had a reasonable expectation of privacy, then that’s certainly the case. But anything you do in the public square is pretty much fair game. They’re not entirely off base on that one, but it requires further clarification.

Then we come to “pressure to engage in sexual intercourse.” Physical or continued verbal coercion of someone who has refused your advances might certainly qualify, but saying, “Would you like to come up to my apartment” at the end of a date is not pressure. It’s a question and the other party is entitled to say no.

The alcohol question has turned into a plague in our courts these days. How much alcohol is “too much” for any given person? There are far too many factors to take into account. Someone who is clearly falling down drunk and slurring their words can’t give meaningful consent. Someone who has one glass of wine at a party is not automatically a rape victim if they decided of their own free will to go home with someone.

We might wish that all of these things were obvious, but clearly they aren’t for many folks. Sadly, there’s no easy solution when media outlets which should ostensibly be helping to educate people are sending them off in the wrong direction. At that point there’s not much to say except anyone of either gender engaged in any sort of dating situation should probably keep the number of a good lawyer on their contact list.