2021 is the 20th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). SAAM is about awareness and prevention of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse.

Sexual assault is any sexual activity when consent is not obtained or freely given. It spans a gamut of behavior from sexual harassment to rape and is a particularly personal and violating form of abuse. Sexual abuse can occur within the sphere of controlling relationships but also between people with no preexisting relationship.

Sexual Assault Facts

In the US, someone is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds. (RAINN)

1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence involving physical contact in their lifetime. (CDC)

In the US, it is estimated that 3 out of 4 sexual assaults are not reported to police. (RAINN) This may be due to fear of retribution or ridicule, fear of not being believed, or not wanting family and friends to know about the assault.

Sexual assault may have chronic negative health impacts, both physical and psychological, and is linked to negative health behaviors. (CDC) These may include bruising and genital injury; recurring gynecological, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and sexual health problems; depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts; and a higher likelihood to smoke, abuse alcohol and drugs, and engage in risky sexual activity.

History of SAAM

Much like domestic violence, sexual assault is an issue that remained largely in the shadows for a long time. Many campaigns for social change beginning in the 1940s and 50s, such as the civil rights and women’s movements, intersected with sexual assault and shed some light on the issue. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that it gained a wider awareness. The first rape crisis center opened in 1971 in San Francisco, followed slowly by more robust advocacy, funding efforts, and legislation, such as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1993.

In 2000, the new National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) and Resource Sharing Project determined that a unified and coordinated effort would find greater reach and success. April had been a common month for events and observances related to sexual violence. Based on a poll sent to existing sexual assault coalitions, April was officially declared Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the US, signified by a teal ribbon, and the first SAAM was observed in April 2001.

SAAM Themes

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, many resources related to awareness and prevention are circulated and many events are held. Based on feedback from various organizations, a theme is selected each year to enable greater focus and deeper information on a particular aspect of the issue. Some previous themes include:

  • Engaging Bystanders
  • Healthy Sexuality
  • College Campuses
  • Prevention is Possible
  • Engaging New Voices
  • Embrace Your Voice
  • I Ask

These have incorporated slogans such as:

  • Prevent Sexual Violence in Our Workplaces
  • It’s Time to Get Involved
  • Safer Campuses, Brighter Futures
  • Use Your Voice to Change the Culture

2021 is all about “We Can Build Safe Online Spaces”.

Online Sexual Abuse 

Sexual abuse is often perceived as a very physical form of abuse that happens when the abuser and their target are in the same location. Yet, the definition is much wider and sexual abuse is rampant in cyberspace as well as the real world.

Online sexual abuse includes, “any type of sexual harassment, exploitation, or abuse that takes place through screens” (NSVRC). Though a screen may appear to distance abusers from those they abuse, it does not lessen the impact. In fact, with the ability to share and re-share comments, images, and videos worldwide, there is the potential for increased visibility and trauma. Online comments come from acquaintances and strangers alike and are often anonymous. Not knowing who made the abusive comment means it could be anyone and, whether or not it actually is, may be seen as indicative of a wider community viewpoint.

The stress and trauma stemming from online sexual abuse can be terrifying and debilitating. Feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, sadness, numbness, and withdrawal are common. These can translate to issues such as sleep difficulty and nightmares, being easily startled, and the inability to concentrate, which can severely affect personal interactions, job performance, and quality of life. The anonymity, magnitude, and ubiquity of online spaces has the potential to increase both the risk of online sexual abuse and the devastating impact it can have.

Much of the information being shared on social media with #SAAM2021 revolves around practicing consent and supporting survivors online. More information can be found on the NSVRC website. The aim is to ensure virtual communities are safe places, free from sexual abuse and harassment. It calls for leaders and individuals to enact policies to create safe platforms and to step in when online spaces are being misused. Consent-based, trauma-informed online spaces are possible.

So much more of our world has gone virtual in the past year with COVID-19 restrictions in place, the need for awareness and support online is greater than ever.

Sexual Abuse Resources

NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center)

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
National Sexual Assault Hotline (24/7)
800-656-HOPE or chat online

CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention)

BARCC (Boston Area Rape Crisis Center)
Hotline (24/7)
800-841-8371 or or chat online 9am – 11pm

Center for Hope & Healing
Hotline (24/7)

List of MA Rape Crisis Centers

Mass.gov Sexual Assault Prevention & Survivor Services

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