Trauma Is Subjective. Assault Categories Are Not.

Learn how trauma can be subjective but also differentiated on

Since the #metoo campaign went viral, many necessary and important conversations have begun. We  dragged the truth about sexual harassment and assault into the light of day, exposing the fact that a disturbing amount of people–especially women–have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes. Discussions about support and awareness have taken beautiful seed. Rape culture is finally being acknowledged on a wide-spread scale. But there’s one discussion that, while important, has not been able to take place without sounding horribly offensive. That is the conversation about the fact that not all traumatic experiences are the same.

Let me start by saying this: trauma is subjective. The development of post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumatic responses is not only determined by the inciting event. The victim’s biological makeup, personal history, and support system also play a significant role. As do the nuances of the event, which may not appear in the categorizing of the event. It is possible for one person to be more traumatized by having her breasts fondled on a bus than another person who was forcibly raped–really–simply because of all those factors; even though most people would likely say, if made to choose, that they’d rather have their breasts fondled than be forcibly raped. Our anxieties and personal biases create hierarchies of trauma, but that’s not how trauma actually works. There is no way to say that “my trauma was worse than yours,” and even if there was, it would be a silly, disrespectful thing to say. Take it from someone with PTSD: being traumatized is not something to aspire toward.

Trauma Is Subjective. Assault Categories Are Not.

Trauma is subjective but that doesn't mean we can miscategorize it--on

All Trauma Is Valid

I was reading a thread on Twitter recently in which a woman described a very creepy encounter she had with a strange man. Essentially, a guy–a stranger–struck up a conversation with her during an evening walk, and it quickly escalated into creepy and vaguely threatening discourse. She opted to leave, at which point he pulled her in for an embrace. The woman did not reciprocate the embrace. She reports that he held her very tightly for 10-15 seconds, which is a pretty awkward and terrifying length of time to endure a forced embrace from a creeper.

Of course, in the thread, some guys tried to say the whole, “that’s a minority, most of us are nice” stuff. She was valiantly defending it–but one of her responses in the thread made me do a double take.

“I can’t believe you’re actually saying this two hours after I was sexually assaulted.” She was not referring to a different event; she was claiming that the man had sexually assaulted her by hugging her.

That’s just one recent example. As a sexual assault survivor, this makes me sad and upset. Not because I think my trauma is so much worse than people who make these sorts of claims about events that do not meet sexual assault criteria, but because it reads to me as though they feel the need to tack the label “sexual assault” to the experience in order to feel validated.

A lot of people have expressed not feeling able to participate in #metoo because their experience is not “enough.” In many cases, that regrettably results in silencing. In some cases, it seems to result in people trying to claim disturbing acts were sexual assault even if they don’t meet the criteria for sexaul assault. Here’s the thing though: we need to hear those stories that are not about sexual assault. It’s imperative that an understanding emerges about the fact that rape culture is so hugely problematic because it doesn’t just result in big acts of sexual assault. There’s also sexual harassment, gender-violence, microaggressions, stalking, and aggressive “flirting” or pick-up artist behavior: these are all painful, problematic, and potentially trauma-inducing. We need to hear all these stories, in all their nuance–not raze them into a blanket “sexual assault” story.

Trauma is trauma. All trauma is valid, whether it’s sexual harassment, sexual aggression, sexual assault, or something else entirely. There is no hierarchy of trauma. Everyone who undergoes a traumatic experience deserves care and support. There is no need to label one type of trauma as another in order for it to be valid.

Why The Distinction Matters

The Phenomenon of Disbelief

People who undergo sexual assault already face the burden of disbelief. Between victim blaming, slut-shaming, minimizing, and plain old denial, there are several barriers to having a report of sexual assault actually get heard. It’s disgusting enough that any time some random outlier makes a fake rape accusation, rape-culture deniers get all riled up and trot it out as “proof” that the problem isn’t real. If we add a large influx of people miscategorizing events to the mix, it’s going to be even harder for victims of sexual assault to be heard. And we very much need to be heard.

It is important to be honest about our experiences. We need to be able to say that catcalling is harassment, and groping is assault but not rape, and penetrating a drunk woman behind a dumpster is rape. It is necessary to admit that a man who hits a woman for allegedly sleeping with someone else has committed a gender-based crime and a physical assault, but not a sexual assault. These distinctions matter, because when we conflate them, we fuel the disbeliever’s arguments. If we cry sexual assault every time something shitty or creepy happens, then sexual assault will lose all meaning and we won’t be able to care for the people who do experience it–or punish those who commit it.

Finally, hyperbole discredits the story itself. When someone experiences harassment, abuse, assault, or any other trauma, she needs care and support in order to recover from it. People become less willing to grant support when they feel they are being scammed into empathizing. It’s not a fair appraisal; my guess is that if someone experiences harassment but calls it assault, she’s doing so because her experience felt intense, not because she wants to deceive anyone. Unfortunately, that may not be how it’s interpreted. I wish we lived in a culture in which we all recognized the need for support after all levels of trauma. If we did, nobody would feel the need to “up-sell” her experience.

The Justice System Applies to All Parties

As a survivor of egregious, multi-faceted abuse, it is difficult for me to say this, but it’s also necessary: everyone deserves a shot at justice. Granted, the legal system needs a major overhaul because right now the scales are tipped so far against victims that they are not getting a fair day in court…but that doesn’t change the fact that people who are accused deserve a shot at justice. That begins with charging them with the crime they committed.

Furthermore, if someone is found guilty–whether in a court of law or a court of public opinion–that person deserves a response that measures up to the crime. The way a survivor processes trauma is personal to her, but when it comes to telling stories and making accusations, she is now affecting another person’s life–her assailant’s. And yeah, a part of me thinks, who cares? Let that asshole burn. But another part of me is forced to recognize that a guy who says creepy things does not deserve the same response as someone who goes around rubbing his erect penis against women on crowded buses.

Another potentially unpopular opinion I hold is that this should be applied to the Hollywood razing. We need to recognize that Weinstein raping women is more egregious than Louis C.K. masturbing in front of unwitting parties. Both are gross and wrong, but one depicts a far worse defect of character. Yet both parties were punished equally; they each lost their entire careers. It could possibly even be argued that Weinstein–the worst of the two–suffered less because, being wealthier, losing his job had less impact on his life.

The victims of these experiences get to define their own traumatic reactions, but when it comes to the way we treat the perpetrators, there is also an objective spectrum that must be acknowledged.


Finally, these categories are legal terms. Assault (which breaks down into different counts) and sexual assault (likewise) are defined, by law. Granted, the definition of sexual assault varies by location and could be made clearer, but it generally fits into three categories:

  • Unwanted penetration
  • Unwanted contact with sexual organs
  • Unwanted exposure of sexual organs

Assault, on the other hand, is a broader. Here are the definitions from Cornell Law School:

  • “Intentionally putting another person in reasonable apprehension of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Intent to cause physical injury is not required, and physical injury does not need to result. So defined in tort law and the criminal statutes of some states.
  •  With the intent to cause physical injury, making another person reasonably apprehend an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Essentially, an attempted battery. So defined in the criminal statutes of some states.
  • With the intent to cause physical injury, actually causing such injury to another person. Essentially, the same as a battery. So defined in the criminal statutes of some states, and so understood in popular usage.”

Finally, sexual harassment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission is defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”

These are three distinct categories. Anyone who has experienced any of these types of events has experienced a wrongful and violating act. She needs care regardless of which category the act came from, and could potentially develop a trauma disorder if she doesn’t receive appropriate care. However, legally and socially speaking, the distinctions do exist. They do not comment on a person’s level of trauma or what conversations that person deserves to engage in. They are simply statements of fact–important ones.

The Caveat

The caveat to all this is that sexual assault is, of course, sometimes very hard to define. The woman on the Twitter thread made the argument that during the embrace, her breasts were pressed against the man’s chest. People’s chests touch when they embrace; that’s normal. Of course, this embrace was not normal as it was forced–but can a generally non-sexual gesture that was forced but otherwise did not cross the boundaries of that gesture be called sexual assault?

There are other types of events in which something could be a sexual assault or not. What about when someone says no to sex, but her partner persists in asking for it until the person says yes? Technically, the sex was agreed upon so rape would be hard to prove. But what about coercion? And why did the partner push like that–was he being consciously abusive, or was he feeding into the social constructs implanted by everything from rom-coms to news stories that reward men for sexual persistence? How about if a partner becomes upset during sex but doesn’t say no? Should the other person be expected to read her body language and stop? What if she’s crying? These situations are not always clear-cut. Sometimes one person may feel violated, while the other person has no idea. How do we handle such situations?

Sometimes, assault categories aren’t clear-cut–but I do think that’s more reason to help unmuddy them, rather than the reverse.

In The End

Being a sexual assault survivor is not something to aspire toward; it is a miserable, difficult existence. Trauma is valid no matter what category it falls under. This is not about hierarchy. But the distinction does matter. There is a spectrum of sexual violence, and not everything is assault. There are different types of trauma, and not everything is a sexual trauma. But all trauma deserves care, and all trauma survivors deserves a voice. These two truths can, indeed, co-exist.

What Do YOU Think?

Should the definition of sexual assault be expanded to include anything that feels creepy or sexual, whether or not a physical sexual violation occurred? Do we owe victims the right to not only define their traumatic response, but also the category of their experience? Is sexual assault the most valid trauma, trumping physical assault or sexual harassment? Do these distinctions not really matter? If you disagree with me, feel free to leave your argument in the comments–just please keep it respectful (i.e. no name calling),

Til next time.

4 thoughts on “Trauma Is Subjective. Assault Categories Are Not.

  1. Your post really made me think and I agree with you completely after reading it. Great points and I applaud you for speaking out on such a loaded topic.

    • Thanks Jasminder. I appreciate it–this post was somewhat terrifying to put up, especially since someone on Twitter already called me a traumatizing piece of shit for expressing this general opinion (wow).

  2. Completely disagree with your premise. Saying that there are no distinctions between violent criminal acts (ie. rape, battery etc.) and the sexual harassment category (which can be construed as something as simple as a hand on a knee or a cat-call whistle) is blatantly wrong. Society has deemed that the violent act of rape and battery as reason enough to be incarcerated in prison. I sense that you now want men to also go to prison for merely for clumsy sexual advances now which is horrific beyond words. You are advocating to ultimately criminalize our bizarre, complex and vaguely understood mating rules and rituals of the animal known as homo-sapiens. Its laughable how you people on the left think you can get away with these types of ideological politics.

    • Dear sir,

      Please master basic reading and/or writing skills before leaving comments on blogs and articles. You are publicly embarrassing yourself. Here you have essentially stated “I completely disagree with your premise” before going on to reveal that your beliefs–while framed in a disturbing and misogynistic context–are almost the exact same as mine, sans the creepy misogyny. I’d explain how that is, except it’s clearly stated in the blog post, which you obviously didn’t really read. Hmm.

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