One in five women. You’ve heard it numerous times. This statistic is the one often cited by people drawing awareness to the problem of sexual assault and rape and how many people it affects. But then, things get a little muddied. What comes after the words “one in five women”is often the words “are raped or are sexually assaulted.” Many rational people see that and think, “Well, which is it?”
As it happens, the research shows different qualifiers to these statements, which can confuse the legitimacy of the statistic. First, sexual assault: The U.S. Department of Justice released a report in 2007 revealing that one in five women were sexually assaulted during their time in college. Then in 2010, the CDC released a report determining that one in five women in America—at large—have been raped in their lifetime. Because the two stats are the same—one in five—the nuance of the qualifiers gets confused. People often mash these stats in their head, thinking that one in five women on campuses are raped, when really the DOJ’s report refers to sexual assault, not all of it being forced penetration. Many have written off the varying statistics, citing a lack of clarification.
When I consider both of these stats, and the many more that we’ve read over the years, I don’t think this confusion is a conspiracy theory or an instance of crying wolf. Yes, accuracy is crucial, but no matter how you parse it, the evidence is there: We have a sexual assault problem.
As a young woman who has seen what things are like on college campuses today, I believe the one in five stat on sexual assault. And as a woman who has seen that, I also believe the one in five stat of rape along women’s lifetimes.
The DOJ study revealed that 50 percent of the women will know their attacker. This was similar to the statistics given to me six years ago at one of my sorority’s chapter meetings. At that meeting, I distinctly remember thinking that this subject in no way applied to me—I had heard the statistics before, and I grew up with enough privilege to mistakenly think I was not at risk. “I am smart; I am generally aware of my surroundings; I don’t hang out alone in the bad part of town or take rides from strangers,” I thought.
I was smart; I was aware; I was avoiding the bad part of town. Well, guess what? It wasn’t a stranger who raped me. As it turns out, I became a living testament to the statistics I had so casually tossed aside. And as soon as I opened up about what happened to me, I had multiple friends contact me saying they too had been victims of rape—in most cases, rapes that went unreported.
It is an uncomfortable topic. Sexual assault and rape involve manipulation and abuse of the most intimate experience you can share with someone. It is not something that people want to talk about, and often it is too traumatic to willingly revisit. While more aggravated cases bear a physical sign of trauma, plenty do not. I was spared any physical evidence of what happened to me and in turn was left with an intangible sense of violation to wrap my head around. I made light of the events. I held myself responsible for putting myself in the situation and tried to convince myself that it was no big deal. I’d had casual sex before—how was this much different?
Cue the “hookup culture.” For me, the one in five stat is plausible in large part due to the environment of casual sex—often drunken casual sex—prevalent on today’s campuses. It’s that lifestyle built around the alluring idea that freedom comes from enjoying sex outside the confines of a committed relationship. It is a culture most of us were surrounded by in college, and if you are at all familiar with the throes of dating in your adult life, it is still very much prevalent.
The hookup life is a lifestyle that I definitely engaged in during my college years, alongside many of my friends. For some people it seemed to work; it gave them the freedom to explore their sexuality and understand themselves better. For many of my friends, however, it always seemed to leave an aftertaste of guilt and regret. Waiting by the phone, hoping the guy would end up being interested, hoping he didn’t just use you for sex. The tables never really seemed to turn. It was a broken record, the same story over and over again.
Casual sex left me feeling empty and regretful. I was left more insecure and unsure of myself each time. I wanted it to work. I wanted to be the strong, independent, feminist woman who could own her sexuality and do whatever she wanted. I wanted to be unaffected by the men I hooked up with. But that never happened for me, and after I was raped, my sexual activity came to a screeching halt.
After that night, I felt as if I had lost a part of myself. I felt ashamed that something so intimate had been used to hurt me. I felt disappointed for not defending myself. I felt mad at society for making me feel like I was “asking for it” because I had consensually entered his room and his bed. I felt confused as to whether it was my fault even though I had clearly said no multiple times. Most of all, I felt that I could no longer engage that side of myself, and, to be honest, I no longer wanted to.
It wasn’t until I completed a focus group discussing the effects of abuse (sexual assault is a form of abuse) that I understood what had been taken from me. That night took a lot away from me, but it was much earlier that I had lost my control and ownership of my sexuality. The minute I let the hookup culture convince me that I was there to please men and give them what they wanted in order to feel good about myself, I gave up all power over my sexuality.
When I arrived on campus, I was under the impression that strength and independence meant being able to detach myself and engage in sexual activity with whomever I pleased. I think this is the impression the hookup culture has given many women. But meaningless sex, if there is such a thing, was not strengthening and did not bring me the independence I wanted. For me, it only highlighted my weaknesses. I could not detach my emotions; I was aimlessly hoping that a man would validate the sexual side of myself and give me confidence about that area of my life.
Now I know that looking for that validation through sex did not make me strong nor did it make me independent, and it did nothing to increase my confidence. Now I know that for me, strength is being able to walk away the minute my sexuality is manipulated or disrespected. Independence is knowing myself and my values enough to say yes to healthy relationships and no to the bad ones. Confidence is knowing the power I have through my sexuality and the great value that comes with that.
To quote Alice Owens, who shared her hookup-turned-rape story with Verily a couple years ago: “Wear protection, everyone says, as if that’s all that matters. But condoms didn’t protect my heart, and contraception doesn’t pay my therapy bills. How I wish someone had told me about the need to protect myself from being used.”
I was raised in a conservative Christian home. I went to a small private school. We had no sexual education programs, and abstinence was assumed. In my home, we never discussed the subject outside of the expectation that you would wait until marriage before engaging in sexual activity. I knew from the media to always use protection but was unfamiliar with the concept of self-worth in regard to my sexuality. And while I have no problem with Christian values and the idea of waiting until marriage, what was lacking in my upbringing and education was a healthy conversation about these things. No one ever told me that my sexuality was my own—to share or keep private as I wanted. I had no idea the power that it held or the way that it could be used against me.
I do not have all the answers as to why the statistics are so high or why rape continues to afflict so many people. But what I do know is this: Knowledge is power, and the more that we as women know about our own self-worth, the more confidence we have when it comes to the value of our sexuality, the more willing we will be to defend it. And speaking specifically of hookup culture, the more we know, the less likely we are to get in bed with someone who will not have any respect for our wishes and will not be looking for our consent.
Photo Credit: I Am Not Ana Photography