“Never take candy from strangers.” I was a little girl decades ago when my mother gave me this guidance before starting kindergarten. It was the unanswered rule of thumb for staying out of bad people’s cars. After that I was always on the lookout for strange men (naively, not women) who would offer candy to a kid and I wondered what happened in bad people’s cars.
April is the 20th anniversary of National “Sexual Assault and Awareness Month” (SAAM), the White House declaration renewing examination of an already existing pandemic now pulsing within a national health crisis: pandemic on pandemic. But in our culture sexual assault is about more than avoiding strangers around the schoolyard; it has become a rampant thing to take virtual candy from strangers over the Internet.
Vulnerable individuals may have a blind spot when it comes to the gravity of talking to strangers online, in any capacity. While much sexual violence happens completely “behind screen,” online chats or virtual conversations can be only a step away from meeting in person, where more candy is offered. Some acts of online sexual assault are punishable by law. Others take place on open formats like Zoom and Instagram, further blurring the lines. Never mind that virtual acts happen behind a screen, they still violate intimate personal boundaries and technically have an impact as dehumanizing as sexual violence committed in person.
“We can build safe online spaces.” The theme for SAAM 2021 takes a hard look at Americans’ even greater shift to virtual communications since Covid took root, including the quag of dangers posed by the Internet to lure would-be victims who by a vast percentage are women (1:5 women compared to 1:38 men). According to The Atlantic, over a third of women report being just stalked or threatened on the Internet but nothing is off limits. “Sextortion,” “revenge porn,” and “doxxing” (documenting someone’s personal information) are newer categories of online abuse, with more established scenarios ranging from online dating, cyber-stalking and cyber-harassment to attempted online coercion and online sex trafficking.
“Sexual harassment, assault and abuse can happen anywhere, including in online spaces,” says the NSVRC (National Sexual Violence Resource Center) commenting on this year’s SAAM objective. “As we connect online, we can learn how to practice digital consent, intervene when we see harmful content or behaviors and ensure that online spaces—whether they be workspaces, classrooms, social media platforms or otherwise—are respectful and safe.”
“A devastating abuse of power.” ~The White House
Building safe online spaces underscores the fuzzy, twisted boundaries behind all sexual abuse. What is it exactly? Sexual abuse is any time a person perceived to have more power violates (by touch, sight or sound) the intimate boundaries of another person perceived to have less power, uninvited. It happens to an American every 73 seconds per national stats. Simply stated, one serious sexual assault incident can alter a person’s entire life physically, emotionally and economically—serious being subjective. Calculate such an impact on immediate family members and by extension the community. Soon you’re dealing with a monster: The public health crisis that is sexual abuse seeps everywhere no matter your zip code.
Whatever its nature, sexual assault cannot be stopped or prevented unless people know about it. SAAM continues to be a siren for sexual violence and offer strength in numbers to millions of victims. Symbolized by the teal ribbon loop and teal-colored campaign materials, SAAM grew out of individual advocacy beginning as early as the 1940s and 50s along with the civil rights era and moving into the 1970s when the first rape crisis center was founded in San Francisco. Since then awareness has been raised through growing numbers of laws and recognition movements aimed at erasing the causes, holding the guilty accountable and restoring survivors.