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Defining sexual assault

Controversy around Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation brings up difficult questions like how to define acts of sexual violence 

It seems as if we look at sexual assault on a spectrum, with rape being the worst offense, punishable with the most severe consequences. However, this point of view does not take into account that every act of assault, no matter how small, achieves the same goal of exerting power and control over the victim.

According to the national anti-sexual violence organization Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), rape is categorized as one form of sexual assault. However, a lot of people have different opinions of what constitutes sexual assault, which stirs up a lot of questions that do not necessarily have definitive answers. Is groping a serious sexual offense? Does there have to be penetration in order for an assault to be considered rape?

“Rape is a form of sexual assault, but not all sexual assault is Rape,” according to RAINN’s website. So, determining where the line between assault and rape is may be complicated. Rape is considered sexual assault, but the amount of unwanted physical contact is contingent on the victim’s experience. Then there is the question of whether sexual assault in any form should be taken as seriously as rape in court.

The emotional repercussions for assault victims vary and should be taken just as seriously as those faced by a rape victim. Each victim can have just as traumatic an experience, no matter the level of physical contact. Some emotional side-effects can include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and recurring flashbacks of past trauma. It can even be difficult for the victim to connect with their environment and those around them after the assault. A traumatic experience should be treated as such, and the goal should always be to support the victim. 

However, I do not know if we can create a baseline for sexual assault cases so that the punishment is fair every time. 

The victim’s emotional and physical injuries differ on a case-by-case basis. Should a college kid accused of groping a female student get life in prison and be alienated from civilization as punishment for their offense? Assault is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances, and if we do not hold perpetrators responsible for their actions then these assaults are likely to continue to occur, justified by outdated platitudes like “boys will be boys.” Is the ultimate question really which is more severe: prison time or lasting trauma?

Then we get “kids” like Brock Turner, who are seen as having a future that society deems valuable before committing assault. Turner was a college student at Stanford University when he sexually assaulted a female student in 2015. The female student was unconscious near a dumpster when Turner was found by two graduate students as he was thrusting on top of her.  He was arrested under charges of “sexual assault of an unconscious person, sexual assault of an intoxicated person and sexual assault with intent to commit rape,” according to The New York Times.

There was some debate in court on whether to charge him with rape because, “at the time, California law narrowly defined rape as ‘an act of sexual intercourse’ under duress or lack of consent,” according to the Times.  

Although Turner did not have intercourse with the student, he did penetrate her with his hands before he got caught. The courts found this sufficient in charging him with intended rape. 

However, during his appeal, Turner’s lawyer tried to spin the charges, saying Turner did not have the intention of raping the student, but only wanted “outercourse.” 

According to the NYT, “Mr. Multhaup referred to “outercourse” as “an alternative to or substitute for sexual intercourse, not a precursor to it, ” spoken as though rape is only constituted by penetration. As we can see, that is not really the case. The student’s life is forever altered, with her body violated in an extreme circumstance even without vaginal penetration. The emotional weight she will have to carry does not lessen by referring to her assault as a less severe offense than what is considered the most brutal.  

So, there is also the factor of intent. Should a man who sexually assaulted a woman without penetration, but with the intention of rape, be tried the same as a rapist? 

In the midst of the allegations against recently-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, questions regarding the severity of sexual assault have gained prominence with the debate over crime and punishment. Christine Blasey Ford came forward after Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court was announced. He allegedly sexually assaulted her at a high school party back in the 1980s, where she claims he pinned her down so he could grope her while his friend watched. 

Ford stated in her letter, “When I was in high school, the phrase ‘sexual assault’ was reserved for incidents of women being grabbed in dark alleys by strangers. It was always violent. If it wasn’t, then it wasn’t sexual assault. It wasn’t something the popular boy you went to school with did.”

In this day and age, if offenders are not punished, then we will continue to be hit with outdated excuses like “boys will be boys.” However, perhaps we should reserve judgement until speculation becomes fact. We are, after all, innocent until proven guilty, and this notion should be respected as reputations are on the line, as well as justice. While this is an important philosophy within the American criminal justice system, sometimes presented facts that accompany innocence are not so black and white.  

Kavanaugh has now been sworn in as a Supreme Court justice after a Senate vote of 50-48. The majority of U.S. senators voted with the belief that the F.B.I. did not find sufficient evidence to prove Kavanaugh guilty of sexual assault, but this was only slightly more than half the gruop. This shows how divided America is on the issue of sexual assault at even the highest level of government. 

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