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South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Why does sexual assault happen?

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"I didn't do anything to make it happen except trust someone and he abused that trust" - sexual assault survivor.

Over the years many theories have been put forward to explain why sexual assault happens in our society.

Psychologists have long tried to come up with explanations for sexual assault. Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, initially believed his patients' reports of incest. However, in the face of disbelief and ridicule from his colleagues and contemporaries he revised his opinion. Freud then attributed disclosures of incest to fantasies on the part of his patients or, if the reports could not be discounted, to the sexual deviance of the perpetrator (Malcolm, 1984).

This Freudian psychoanalytic theory perpetuates the myth that women and children fabricate stories about being sexually assaulted, a view that has now been completely discredited. Neither does it address the now widely accepted fact that the vast majority of offenders appear to be free of any mental illness. According to Cohen and Boucher (1972): "The sexual offender may be passive and inhibited or active and assertive, gentle or violent, religious or irreligious, masculine or effeminate. He may hate his mother, love his mother or be ambivalent about her. He may have had a repressive sexual development or he may have been over stimulated." In other words offenders appear to reflect the normal types of men in society as a whole. In most cases they are neither emotionally disturbed nor "sexual psychopaths".

Other theories have suggested that women in some way encourage sexual assault. These have been called "victim precipitation" theories. For example, one idea is that men misread as a sign of consent a woman's eye contact, gestures, actions or words, such as agreeing to a dinner invitation, engaging in friendly conversation or going somewhere alone with a man. Thus women are said to be assaulted because they do not accurately convey their wishes to men. This is one of several "blame the victim" theories which fail to take into account the fact that there is no equality between offender and victim and that men in these situations do not make their own intentions (i.e. to have sex) clear. These theories also presuppose that men must have the right, in certain circumstances, to force a woman to have sex against her will.

Other commonly held theories propose that some men are the victims of uncontrollable sexual urges or that women "ask for" and, indeed, deserve rape because of the way they dress or behave.

However, the theory which came to the fore with the re-emergence of feminism is that sexual assault is not a fabrication, is not attributable to sexual deviance or uncontrollable sexual urges on the part of men and is in no way the fault of the victims. Sexual assault is all about power. Current thinking is that sexual assault is a result of a combination of existing social structures, conventional attitudes and socialisation. It is a product of a sexist and patriarchal society - an extension of the current legal, social, economic and political systems in which we live. In other words sexual assault is a symptom of a society which is based on the uneven distribution of power between men, women and children. Some men choose to assert and reinforce their power through violence. Our public and cultural institutions and prevailing community attitudes allow them to do this. This is why it is so important that these institutions and attitudes are changed so that the community becomes totally intolerant of any form of violence.


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