Exclusive: Sexologist's Tips for Ending Violence

As sexual violence remains a prevalent public health problem in the United States, an expert shares her thoughts with Healthnews on steps we can all take to eradicate the issue.

Sexual violence is often thought of as an interpersonal issue that only affects those involved, but what if we thought of it as a societal problem instead — one that impacts each of us and one that we each have the power to solve?

This communal, unified approach is the basis for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s (NSVRC) campaign for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which occurs in April every year. The NSVRC argues that “whenever anyone experiences sexual violence, every community member is affected.”

“Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a chance for each of us to think about the role we can play in preventing sexual abuse, assault, and harassment,” says Laura Palumbo, the communications director at NSVRC.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over half of women and almost one in three men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes, and one in three women and about one in nine men have experienced sexual harassment in a public place.

Most of the time, the perpetrator of sexual violence is someone the survivor knows, such as a friend, current or former intimate partner, coworker, neighbor, or family member.

The CDC also acknowledges that the numbers underestimate the real prevalence of the problem because many cases go unreported due to shame, embarrassment, or fear of the consequences of speaking up.

In light of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Healthnews interviewed clinical sexologist, sociologist, and author Jenn Gunsaullus, Ph.D., about what it might take to eradicate sexual violence, including actionable steps all individuals can take in their lives and relationships.

Gunsaullus has extensive experience working with non-profits to end sexual violence, has led TEDx talks on sexual shame, and frequently presents at colleges on the subject of consent. Below, she provides tips for curbing the epidemic of sexual violence.

Image courtesy of Jenn Gunsaullus
Image courtesy of Jenn Gunsaullus

Q: What needs to change in our larger culture to end the normalization of sexual violence?

A: We live in a culture of coercion. In so many aspects of life, we think it’s fine to just keep going for what you want, to keep trying to convince and persuade the other person. There’s an assumption that they really do want what you want, you just have to get them there — I think that pervades too much of sexual interactions. People don’t realize how coercive that is. You are wearing somebody down, you are playing on their emotions, you are being manipulative.

I give college talks around compassionate consent, and a lot of what I talk about is this gray area that is so common in sexual interactions because we're taught this very black-and-white idea that If you don't want to do something, don't do it. If somebody says "no," don't do it. That’s not how most sexual interactions play out because there's so much nuance of thoughts, emotions, desires, fears, wanting to be liked, not wanting to be rejected, hormones, wanting to feel desired, social status, and maybe alcohol, not to mention our innate personalities and how we were raised and our gender and our race. There are just so many components that come into play and most of our approaches aren't addressing the complexity of that.

Q: What can a bystander do to intervene?

A: If you witness a situation where someone is being harassed, or it seems like someone is trying to take advantage of someone else, intercept directly — only if it feels safe enough — in a non-accusatory way. One of the main things you don't want to do is escalate the situation. Step in between the folks, getting as close to the potential victim as possible, and say, “Hey, is everything okay here? What's going on here?”

There can also be some acting involved. You could come up and pretend that you know the potential victim and start having a conversation with them. Start talking about something, even if it's small talk, to create a distraction and something that interrupts whatever seems to be in action.

Q: How can people confidently set boundaries with a new partner?

A: Setting boundaries with a new partner is all about reflecting on what you want to try, what you don’t want to try, what you’re curious about, and then talking about it. Just because something is awkward or embarrassing to talk about doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, it just means you don't have skills yet.

Setting boundaries should ideally be about sharing expectations, working on communication, encouraging both partners to check in throughout the experience, and establishing that it’s safe to say “no” at any point, versus specific boundaries about what you want to do or don't want to do — although that can be part of it also.

Q: Why is there still so much shame and stigma when it comes to sharing experiences with sexual violence?

A: A lot of the stigma, blame, and shame we see around topics of sexual violence exist because we are not comfortable with sexual topics as a society. Younger generations are more comfortable talking about sexual topics, but I don't see it going hand in hand with a comfort around emotional vulnerability. When we do have greater comfort around sexual topics, it is still in that black-and-white way, but that softness of heart and that emotional vulnerability and feeling of emotions and connecting to others in that way can sometimes be blocked.

Q: What are some critical steps we can all take to end sexual violence?

A: The first thing is we need greater comfort and skills when it comes to talking about really detailed sexual topics. If we can’t do this with competence and confidence, we are not ready to even be having intimate sexual encounters. The second piece is working on better understanding our own emotions, what we're feeling, what motivates us, when do we feel resentment, are we drinking to try to numb ourselves — all sorts of awareness around our choices and our underlying emotions. The more emotional awareness we have, the more able we are to articulate those emotions, and the more we can ask questions along those lines to other people and realize they have this whole complexity inside of them as well.

The third piece is reflecting our own behaviors. If you wake up in the morning and you had a sexual encounter the night before, are you 100% sure you consented and wanted to do all of that, and that the other person did also? You might be unsure, so what can you do better next time? This isn't a way of making people feel shame or blame or guilt, because that can make someone want to bury their head in the sand. But we each need to reflect our own behaviors and roles in this if we want to end sexual violence.

The final piece is that this starts with parents and what they're teaching their kids. This starts with parents reflecting on their own values, past experiences, hang-ups, shame, where they feel embarrassed, and negative things that happened in the past and ensuring that they're not passing that on to their kids. Parents need to be creating spaces where their kids can bring up any topics, where they do ongoing sex and body and socio-emotional awareness education and consent education starting at a young age. It’s about giving that body autonomy from a young age and teaching kids to reflect on what they want, whether they want to be touched, how their body feels, and therefore teaching them to honor that in other people — teaching them that you should never assume you know what someone else wants if you haven’t asked.

Q: Are you hopeful for the future and the prospect of ending, or at least reducing, the amount of sexual violence in our culture?

A: Yes and no. If you compare back to the 70s and the 80s, we have much greater awareness, particularly of childhood sexual abuse, acquaintance rape, how normal coercion can be in sexual encounters, and how people can read the same situation very differently. We are better at not blaming the victim — that's massive.

Where am I less hopeful? We're still not good at talking about the nitty-gritty of sexual encounters and knowing that doing so isn’t a bad thing, it’s not inappropriate, and that it's actually really empowering, even if it feels embarrassing. I don’t necessarily see us getting better, as a society, at emotional vulnerability around these topics. And I think social media only leads to less nuance and a black-and-white way of thinking about these uncomfortable topics. We've lost tolerance for ambiguity in the name of learning and critical thinking as a society overall, and without that, we truly cannot tackle complicated topics like this.

Plus, when we're losing reproductive rights for half of our population, we are definitely moving in the wrong direction. All of these topics are tied to a bigger picture of honoring body autonomy and honoring the complexity of what other humans who aren't us experience in their lives. There’s a loss of empathy and compassion, and I just think we need a whole lot more of that.

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