What Qualifies As Sexual Assault?

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Actual vs. Perceived Assault

Actual assault is when someone is intentionally trying to harm you. When it comes to determining whether or not a crime has been committed, intentions are very important. We all know there’s a big difference between accidentally dropping someone’s vase, and purposely smashing the thing. No one wants to be punished for having motivations that they didn’t actually have.

Perceived assault has to do with how you personally interpret someone else’s behavior. Suppose you are the owner of that vase that gets smashed. When you hear the loud crashing sound, you turn around and look at the person who is standing there. You quickly take note of who the person is, what their current relationship is with you, the expression on their face, their body language, and their response to what just happened. Your mind then comes up with an instant theory about whether or not that person smashed your vase on purpose.

These kinds of mental assessments happen extremely fast, but they are also very biased. Your personal life experiences play an enormous role in influencing what kinds of assessments your mind is likely to make in certain situations. For example, a woman who has a long history of being mocked by men will be quick to assume any man is insulting her even when he isn’t. Ever see a man hold a door open for a woman as an act of courtesy only to have her get mad and act insulted? Or have you ever tried to say something polite to a stranger only to have them assume you were trying to flirt with them? Perceived intentions are often different than actual intentions. It takes effort on both sides to clear up misunderstandings that occur between two humans, and often those efforts are never made. The result is that people go through life collecting a lot of false interpretations about what other people’s intentions towards them have been.

In counseling, perceived assault matters more than actual assault. This is because your mental health is greatly influenced by what you believe. The goal of trauma counseling is to lower the stress level of minds that are carrying around some very upsetting beliefs about the past which are affecting the person’s view of the future. For example, if you believe that your wife tried to murder you by poisoning your morning coffee, you will feel extremely stressed in your own home. You will feel very nervous about eating any of the food in your kitchen. You’ll feel uncomfortable sleeping in your wife’s presence in case she decides to harm you in some other way. Even if your wife hasn’t actually tried to harm you, your perception of her is what is affecting your behavior and emotional state.

As far as your mental health is concerned, perceived assault is the most important issue. If you believe someone tried to rape you, then you need the same degree of help as someone who was actually raped. Remember that actual has to do with the other person’s intentions. Perceived has to do with your own interpretation. Because you can’t see into someone else’s mind, you have no quick way to tell if your interpretation of their behavior was accurate or not. Often a therapist can help you sort this out, and when it is possible to determine what someone else’s actual motivations were, that can be a helpful part of therapy. But regardless of what someone else’s motivations towards you actually were, there is always a way for you to interpret your experience in a way that will be less stressful to your mind. Trauma occurs not just by assuming someone was acting maliciously towards you, but by then going on to form a long list of predictions about what their actions mean about your personal worth, your future safety, and your ability to interact with the world.

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