Redefining Sexual Assault


Summary:  Now that they have isolated some of the prevailing messages and myths surrounding sexual assault, students will try to understand sexual assault from an alternative rhetorical perspective: that of the survivor.  They will try to define sexual assault as a category of behaviors that causes harm to others. Make sure to tell students that understanding multiple arguments is an important step for them as they try to decide how they would like people to conduct themselves on campus.  In this lesson they will create a class definition of sexual assault, which is the first step towards the final goal: set of standards they want to follow and want their peers to follow in order to create the campus community that they want. This will be an evolving document that changes as they complete the Campus Culture Project.


Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will discuss how and why sexual assault is harmful to others.
  2. Students will discuss how specifically sexual assault goes against values that we hold as a society.
  3. Students will use these ideas to write a definition of sexual assault the reflects their values and ensures everyone’s safety.
  4. Once they have a definition and understand exactly why sexual assault is wrong, students will begin to question what societal gender norms allow it to happen.


Teaching Materials:

  1. Discussion questions printed or projected


Student Assignments:

  1. Due: Reading “Letter to Survivors”
  2. For 2-week Curriculum: assign “Recognizing Choice” short writing assignment for the next lesson


Outline for Class Activity



  • Small Group Discussion (5 min): Introduce this set of questions in a handout or projection:
    1. One reason we try to prevent something is to keep people from getting hurt.  Looking at the article that you read for today and your previous knowledge, discuss the negative emotional, physical and psychological effects of sexual assault on people who experience it.
    2. Why do you think sexual assault causes these things?  What about that experience do you think would cause someone to feel this way?
    3. What values do we hold as a society that make sexual assault wrong.  For example, we believe people have the right to have possessions and control what happens to those possessions.  You can’t drive someone’s car without asking. So what values do we hold that sexual assault goes against?


Give them 5 minutes or so to discuss in their groups while you circulate around the room to provoke more in-depth discussion or to reinvigorate conversations that are slowing down.


  • Large Group Discussion (15-20 min): Work through the questions, making sure that all groups get a chance to respond and that their responses are recorded on a WordDoc that will form the basis for the student’s guidelines about sexual assault.  The primary goal of this discussion is to lead students to the ideas below:
    1. People have the right to decide what happens to their bodies and who they have sexual contact with. When and if they decide to engage in sexual activity, they have the right to choose how they prefer to enjoy those activities.
    2. While there are many reasons sexual assault is harmful, one core element is that the assailants take away the survivors’ ability to choose.  
    3. The problem isn’t always that sexual assault is violent in the way we might picture: a stranger jumping out of the bushes and physically forcing someone.  Sexual assault is more likely to be committed by a person the survivor knows. Steer students away from traditional pictures of violence and towards the ideas of choice and (dis)empowerment.
    4. Encourage students to see this activity as a way to define sexual assault for themselves, so that they have their own opinions when they hear debates about sexual assault prevention or read the University of Iowa’s code of conduct.
    5. To explain this, you might pose a question like this: imagine when the first legislators made laws against sexual assault, what were they trying to keep from happening or tell people they couldn’t do?  How do you think they decided what counts as sexual assault?


So if we value people’s right to decide what happens to their bodies, and we believe that loss of that control is part of what makes sexual assault so harmful, we are going to start talking about what exactly keeps people from being able to make those choices for themselves.  This includes obvious things like physical force, and less obvious things like societal expectations. We’re going to start talking about them today, and continue the discussion in future lessons.


  • Small Group Discussion (5 – 10 min): Then divide students into groups of 3-4 and give them three minutes to brainstorm answers to the questions below.  While they work, move around the classroom to re-invigorate conversations that have slowed down.
    1. What does it mean to be “masculine” or “manly”?  Brainstorm a list of traits that “masculine” people have.
    2. What does it mean to be “feminine”? Brainstorm a list of traits that “feminine” people have.
    3. Brainstorm some of the worst insults or names you could call a man.  Brainstorm some of the worst insults or names you could call a woman.
    4. Look at the lists you’ve come up with.  What trends do you see? If women are trying to be feminine in this way, and men are trying to be masculine, how might that affect everyone’s ability to have a healthy sex life?


  • Large Group Discussion (10 – 15 min): As a class start making a list for the traits they associate for each gender.  The goal here is to guide students toward the idea that sometimes the traits associated with femininity are seen as the negative opposites of the traits associated with masculinity i.e. weakness vs. strength, over emotional vs. stoic, manipulative vs. direct, etc.  Create a class list of worst insults for men and women. The goal here is to show that we have lots of ways to insult a man by implying that he’s too feminine, and we have lots of ways to insult women by implying she has too much sex. From there lead to these ideas:
    1. As an underlying cultural assumption one of the worst social sins for a man is to seem feminine or act in a feminine way.
    2. Emphasize why it is wrong to use a stereotype of half the population to insult the other half.  Use this reality to underscore how being a woman is considered being inferior to being a man.
    3. As an underlying cultural assumption one of the worst social sins for a woman is to have sex a lot or appear that she has sex a lot.
    4. Emphasize that this doesn’t mean women don’t want sex, but that they have to act like they don’t want or don’t have lots of sex. This is a double standard: what happens if a man has or appears to have a lot of sex?  How does this relate to his masculinity?
    5. If we think women are always trying to appear to not want sex, we might not take a “no” seriously. We might think she is just “being modest” or “playing hard to get” or “being coy.”  This leads to the mistaken expectation that a woman saying “no” doesn’t really mean no.  This breakdown in communication hurts everyone’s ability to choose what they want.
    6. Discuss how this leads to a perception that all sexual encounters between men and women are adversarial: the idea that men always want sex and women never do, so women always have to be persuaded (or coerced or forced) to have sex.  
    7. This reinforces the assumption that men can’t be victims and women can’t be assailants, which makes sexual assault within the LGBT community (or in instances of a woman assaulting a man) even more prone to shame or victim blaming


  • Wrap Up (2 min): If you are continuing straight into the next unit of the Campus Culture Project encourage students to make the connection below about building their guidelines from the definition they just created.  If you will be returning to the Campus Culture Project later in the semester, give students a timeline for when you will return to these ideas, summarize what they have learned, and give them a picture of how they will build on the work they have done.


The statistic I mentioned before—that one in four women, one in six men and one in two transgender individuals get sexually assaulted—has gotten a lot of people talking about this issue.  The leaders involved in the debate have a lot of trouble agreeing on a definition of sexual assault. This is partially because most people picture sexual assault as a man jumping out of a dark alley and grabbing someone off the street.  But that’s not usually how it happens. Around 90% of college-age rape victims are assaulted by someone they know. So, if preventing sexual assault means making sure people always get to choose who, when and which sexual activities they engage in, what are some things that keep us from being able to make a choice for ourselves? The answer most people jump to is physical force, but that four in five statistic might imply something different.  How else might affect people’s ability to make their own choice? What keeps people from being able to choose what sexual activities we participate in?