What is Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is conduct of a sexual nature which is non-consensual and is carried out through threat, coercion, exploitation, deceit, force, physical or mental incapacitation, and/or power of authority. 

What does that mean? Put simply, sexual violence occurs when someone forces or manipulates someone else into sexual activity without their consent. Sexual violence encompasses a spectrum of violations, from harassing words or texts, to unwanted touching or exposure, to “talking someone into” sexual activity (coercion), to rape. Sexual violence may occur between strangers, acquaintances, friends, family members, or current or past partners. It may happen in the context of a random encounter, hookup, casual relationship, on-going relationship, or marriage. When sexual violence occurs between dating or intimate partners, it also falls under the umbrella of relationship violence. 

What is Relationship Violence?

Relationship violence is physical, emotional, psychological, or financial violence carried out by intimidation, threat, coercion, or force that occurs in the context of a relationship. Common forms of relationship violence are domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. 

Relationship violence may include sexual violence, but it does not have to. For example, forcing a partner to have sex without a condom is an example of both relationship violence (violence in the context of a relationship) and sexual violence (non-consensual sexual act carried out through force). Using physical force to intimidate a partner is an example of relationship violence that does not necessarily have a sexual violence component.

Relationship violence that occurs in the context of a shared living space is known as domestic violence. Domestic violence may occur to any people who share a living space, even if they are not in a romantic or intimate relationship. For example, a child can experience domestic violence via a physically, emotionally, or verbally abusive parent. Relationship violence that occurs between people who do not live together but currently have (or have had in the past) an intimate relationship is known as dating violence. Relationship violence may also take the form of stalking, which is repeated actions directed at a specific person that causes that person to feel fear.  

Why Does Violence Occur?

Sexual and relationship violence are based on power. In the Green Dot bystander program, you’ll hear sexual and relationship violence referred to as “power-based personal violence.” All sexual and relationship violence is based on power - not on sexual desire, attraction, or as a result of the actions of the person experiencing the violence. This type of violence  occurs when someone chooses to use it in order to obtain or maintain dominance and/or control over that person. 

If you’ve experienced any form of sexual or relationship violence, please reach out to a trusted person for support. You are not alone, and it is not your fault. By age 18, one in four women and one in sixteen men have been sexually assaulted, closely mirroring the statistics for relationship violence prevalence. Numbers are even higher for the LGBTQ+ community, with 47% of trans folks experiencing sexual assault in their lifetime.  

Sexual and relationship violence are never the fault of the person who experiences it. Oftentimes survivors of violence minimize their experience, but no instance of sexual or relationship violence is “too insignificant” to “not count” or not be worth addressing. Your experience matters, no matter how big or small it might seem, and Counseling Services, Campus Ministries, Health Services, Safer Together, and Title IX, as well as community resources, are all available to help you process your experience.

Sexual and Relationship Violence Response and Prevention

Nationally, addressing sexual and relationship violence began with a focus on intervention and response. The goal was to raise awareness of the issue and create the systems, strategies, and programs that would support those who were directly impacted by instances of these forms of violence. The programs, systems, and policies that were developed and implemented have achieved significant impact in raising awareness of and improving response to sexual and relationship violence.

The field of violence prevention eventually grew out of these response efforts, necessitating a new paradigm to distinguish between response and prevention efforts. Because response and prevention have different missions, focus on two different target audiences, require different skill sets, and are informed by different research, a distinct set of strategies began to emerge. The differences between response and prevention strategies can be seen in the table below.



Increase awareness and knowledge of the problem

Increase solution-focused behaviors by building new skills

“If I only help one person” - ensure well-being of the individual who was harmed

Numbers matter - need to reach critical mass of people adopting new behavior/norm

Reactive - responds to something that has already occurred in order to provide services, support, accountability, etc.

Proactive - encourages behaviors that establish norms and values that communicate that power-based personal violence isn’t tolerated

Frames recipient of the message as either potential victim/survivor or potential person causing harm - the recipient is the one impacted by the problem being discussed

Frames recipient in a third party role (ally/ bystander/change agent) so they don’t disregard message if they don’t imagine themselves as potential victim/harmer

External mandate - receiving new knowledge/info is often mandated in university policy or federal regulations - participants not required to “buy in” to message in order to receive new knowledge

Intrinsic motivation - can’t mandate people’s involvement in prevention, so relies on people being intrinsically motivated in order to succeed

Addressing sexual and relationship violence holistically requires coordinated response and prevention strategies. On EMU’s campus, the Coordinated Community Response Team (CCRT) is responsible for improving EMU’s response to and prevention of sexual and relationship violence. To learn more or get involved, email us at safertogether@emu.edu.

This project was supported by grant 2017-WA-AX-0022 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, US Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.

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