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Letter: A word on Sexual Assault

Letter: A word on Sexual Assault

In 2021, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joined the list of politicians, community activists, and well-recognized men to make headlines for perpetrating sexual assault.  His appalling behavior towards women staffers resulted not only in a hostile work  environment and long-term trauma for his victims, but increased public skepticism and anxiety at a time of political polarization. 

The Mission District of San Francisco now bears the latest sexual abuse scandal with a newly publicized rape accusation against a widely-known community housing advocate. His public denial of the act furthers the myth that so many women hear: that the encounter was consensual.  

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Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Every eight minutes, that victim is a child. Roughly one third of women ages 18 to 34 have experienced sexual harassment at work and 81 percent of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment (via jokes, name-calling, etc). While workplace sexual harassment overwhelmingly victimizes females, men also compose roughly 17 to 20 percent of victims. 

Women and girls experience sexual assault in everywhere from congress to churches to schools. An unwanted wink, hand squeeze, or back rub perceived as innocent by men creates a threat when it is not consensual. 

Additionally, survivors who admit that they were subjected to sexual assault are often judged or dismissed, causing further shame. Those defending the perpetrators will question a woman’s character, temperament, and past sexual relationships, as if these absolve the perpetrator and justify his illegal behavior. Perpetrators will attempt to blame their behavior on youth or lack of awareness, offering apologies while denying wrongdoing.

Further, reporting sexual assault often puts women at risk of being blamed for breaking up families or social networks, particularly when the perpetrator is a relative, good friend, or upstanding community member. Women who report sexual assault also risk being maligned on social media or jeopardizing a possible promotion or academic achievement. Thus, for many women, ignoring or even denying sexual abuse may be a less disgraceful or traumatic option. 

Social Science and Feminist literature provide evidence this behavior is not about a  sexual encounter but about the need for the assailant to assert power over women or  children, who are most often victims of sexual misconduct. How does a woman confront 


a superior without jeopardizing employment, a possible promotion, or academic  achievements, as it often happens in higher education settings, without compromising  her financial security?  

Illustration by Eva Moschitto

The Me Too movement has played a pivotal role in reassuring women there is strength  in numbers. However, as more women share their stories of sexual harassment, they  discover that rape is too hard to expose and report, while at the same time, discrediting  a woman who brings up charges is too easy. Coming forward and reporting sexual  harassment or assault takes tremendous courage. 

Those defending the perpetrators will  question a woman’s character, temperament, and past romantic and sexual relationships as if these absolve the perpetrator and justify his behavior. False rape accusations are often cited as a reason to doubt a woman’s claim. In reality, data  shows these to be all but negligible. A woman has much more to lose than to gain by  exposing her private trauma.  

Women of color in particular are often expected to weigh the consequences of exposing their brothers in the struggle for sexual assault. They carry a double burden: the need to speak out against their assault and the knowledge that the wheels of justice turn more forcefully against men of color. 

However, political affiliation, religion, country of origin, ethnicity, or commitment to community activism should not be an excuse to dismiss or minimize inexcusable behavior. The long-term impact of physical or emotional trauma does not choose sides.  

Many public figures have come forth displaying outrage, demanding we must believe  the women, but in the same breath insisting on the man’s innocence. Most perpetrators  and their defenders contritely blame this terrible behavior on their youth or lack of  awareness, promising counseling and therapy. They offer statements that pass for  apologies while denying wrongdoing. Like former President Trump did, others adhere to  the old argument that if these accusations were true, the accusers would have made  them public long before and labeled their accusers as opportunists seeking monetary  gains or publicity. Some men justify inappropriate behavior with the notion that women’s  body language and attire signal “consensual” sexual encounters. Are we to believe that  men are incapable of controlling their sexual urges at the sight of bare skin? Perhaps  the profit-driven fashion industry should be scrutinized more closely in their  collaboration at exploiting the objectification of women. 

Immigration status or absence of emotional, economic, or linguistic support often renders Latinas especially vulnerable to abuse. The US Justice Department Office for Victims of Crime OVC, Latinas, and Sexual  Violence states that “Latina girls reported they were likely to stop attending school activities and sports to avoid sexual harassment.” 

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Married Latinas are less likely than other women to immediately define their experiences of forced spousal sex as “rape” and terminate their relationships. Some Latinas view sex as a marital obligation. 

Immigrant Latina domestic workers are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation  because they depend on their employers for their livelihood, live in constant fear of  being deported, and suffer social isolation. Female farmworkers are 10 times more vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment at work. 

For the increasing numbers of women who journey to the U.S. border, rape is so prevalent that many women take birth control before emigrating to ensure that they won’t get pregnant. 

These disturbing accounts of Latinas’ experiences prompt us to examine how our cultural traditions might contribute to unacceptable and abusive behavior. 

In the Spanish-speaking community, along with mamá and papá, one of the first words  a baby learns is “besito.” From an early age, children are encouraged to show respect and affection to relatives and friends with a hug and a kiss. However, Latina girls often experience apprehension, unease, dread at having to kiss that tío, older cousin, or friend of the family who often holds his embrace a bit too long. While they may not yet be capable of verbalizing their feelings, they know the encounter is not consensual. As a result, Latina girls must bear the adverse effects of a culture where masculinity equals privilege, physical dominance, and emotional superiority. 

Latinx feel pride in the openness, warmth, and generosity of our interactions. We greet  each other with a tight hug, a hand squeeze, or a kiss on the cheek. We believe in the notion that together we can accomplish all we set out to do. However, we as a community need to address how unwanted sexual advances, coercion, and abuse leads to trauma and unhealthy relationships. We all deserve autonomy over our bodies to be the agents of our destinies.

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