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Sexual Assault Is About Power

How the #MeToo campaign is restoring power to victims.

By Lyn Yonack, MA, MSW, BCD-P

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

This is part one of a two-part series on the impact of sexual harassment on mental health.

All about power

Despite its name, sexual abuse is more about power than it is about sex. Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control. In heterosexual and same-sex encounters, sex is the tool used to gain power over another person. And as #MeToo attests with heart-breaking clarity, sexual abuse affects children and adolescents as well.

Far and away, most sexual assaults and sexual violence are perpetrated by men, and typically arise within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim. Although the vast majority of #MeToo stories describe occurrences within the family, with a classmate, a man on the street, in a bar or at a party—where men assert power bestowed on them by mere virtue of their being men, the events that propelled the recent social media outcry involve powerful, prominent men who use their positions and the perks of their power to seduce, coerce, manipulate, and attack. These men have what their victims, who are in less powerful positions, want and need: a job, good grades, a promotion, a recommendation, an audition, a role in a movie, a place close to the center of power. They confuse and control by dangling enticements with one hand and wielding threats, implied or explicit, with the other.

In October 2016, a month before the presidential election, a 2005 tape came to the public’s attention. In raw footage from behind the scenes on Access Hollywood, Republican candidate Donald Trump bragged boldly about kissing women without their consent, grabbing at their genitals, and simply having his way: “… when you’re a star, they let you do it.”

In a subsequent debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper called the actions that Trump described “sexual assault.” Trump called it “locker room talk.” Whatever the term, the behavior and the attitude ultimately proved inconsequential, not sufficiently meaningful or outrageous to derail Trump’s election victory. In January 2017, Trump took up the position as the most powerful man in the Western world.

Yet, today, almost exactly one year later, scores of women—and a number of men—are stepping up and speaking out. They tell heartbreaking, terrifying stories of rape, assault, harassment, and abuse at the hands of powerful men—in Hollywood and New York, in politics and journalism, in religious and educational institutions—taking advantage of their powerful positions. One by one, by the thousands, women are joining around #MeToo to lend support to each other and voice their outrage, intent on being silenced no more.

What is sexual violence?

Sexual violence involves unwelcomed sexual contact of any type including, yes, grabbing genitals and kissing without consent. Assaultive behavior ranges from talk, texting, touch, and exhibitionist or voyeuristic behavior to rape and murder.

It is sexual assault whenever words and actions of a sexual nature are imposed against another person’s will. The perpetrator may use force, threats, and manipulation or sweet talk and flattery (or a combination).

Who does what to whom?

While men are subject to sexual abuse, harassment, coercion, humiliation, and subjugation, sexual assault is far more likely to be committed against women by men. By and large, whether the victim is female, male, transgender or child, men are the perpetrators.

According to the CDC and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), almost 1 in 5 women (18.3 percent) reported experiencing rape at some time in their lives, as compared with 1.4 percent of men.

Those same organizations reported the following:

  • In the 12 months prior to responding to the 2012 CDC survey, 5.6 percent of women, and 5.3 percent of men experienced sexual violence other than rape, including coercion, unwanted sexual contact, intimidation, aggressive come-ons and being forced to penetrate someone else.
  • Almost half of all women (44.6 percent) and more than one-fifth of all men (22.2 percent) experience sexual violence other than rape throughout their lifetime.
  • Where female victims reported rape, 51.1 percent of the perpetrators were intimate partners, 40.8 percent acquaintances, 12.5 percent family members, and 13.8 percent strangers.
  • Rape is the most under-reported crime: 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police.
  • One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college and most – 90 percent – of college sex crimes go unreported.
  • False reporting for sexual assault crimes is low. It’s between 2 and 10 percent, which is the same as false reporting for other crimes.

The effects on mental well-being

When individuals experience their world as particularly threatening and unsafe, their risk of emotional distress and mental illness escalates. Even occasional abuse reinforces a sense of powerlessness and can cause or contribute to depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Moreover, because victims are commonly blamed (Aren’t they asking for it by the way they dress? Why did they comply? Why didn’t they resist more? Why didn’t they go to the police?), many hold their secrets in silence, shame, and suffering. Perpetrators count on society’s tendency to blame the victim to keep their victims silent.

Within a social context

Too often society turns a blind eye to sexual assault and violence. In many ways, the ethos of our culture encourages the use of power over others and disdains vulnerability. So long as contemporary culture reinforces traditional constructs of masculinity, ignores the subjugation of women, encourages silence, justifies violence as an appealing or inevitable expression of power, blames the victim, and enacts oppression in all of its forms, sexual violence will persist.

At the same time, the current clamor on social media, in the press and in public discourse can give us hope that sexual violence, objectification, subjugation, and humiliation will no longer be tolerated in silence. However, when speaking out is not enough, organizations like RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) offer crucial support, information, resources, and advocacy. The nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN operates the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, and in partnership with local sexual assault service providers across the country and the Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense.

Lyn Yonack is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice in Great Barrington, MA and on the faculty of Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute, Adjunct Faculty in the Erikson Institute of the Austen Riggs Center, and a member of Western New England Psychoanalytic Society.

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