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Who causes harm? The answer may surprise you

By Brenda Payan

When you think of a person who harms others, who comes to mind? Someone with a strong build and bad intentions, hiding in the dark? Maybe someone with a long criminal record?

Contrary to popular beliefs that causing harm is unique to certain groups of people, everyone is capable of causing harm, directly or indirectly, intentionally or accidentally. Harm, by definition, is anything that has or could have adverse effects on something or someone. Most people consider themselves to be good people who do not intentionally cause others harm. But they may still harm other individuals unknowingly or without truly evaluating the impact that their seemingly minor actions can have.

Within the context of sexual violence, harm to others can be seen in obvious cases of unwanted sexual contact, but harm may also occur within sexual interactions that can initially be consensual and wanted. Examples of this include pressuring or trying to convince sexual partners to participate in activities that they do not express interest in, refusing or avoiding getting tested for an STD or sharing private information or photos of sexual partners with other individuals without said partner’s consent, among others.

All of these examples involve violating someone’s trust or a lack of respect for someone’s choices and privacy, which can ultimately harm them physically, mentally or both, even if it is not immediately apparent. Harm can also occur in situations where a person feels intimidated by the other partner in some way or when a partner feels that their decision to engage in sexual activity or withdraw from sexual activity will not be accepted; it is important to be conscious of a partner’s verbal and nonverbal cues, as well as their boundaries.

In addition, harm to others within the context of sexual violence does not always occur between sexual partners. It can occur between friends or acquaintances, for example, in the form of seemingly innocent comments about someone’s sexual history or sexual activity. However, not everyone is comfortable with or wants their information to be a topic of discussion, even if the comments aren’t negative.

In understanding and addressing the culture of sexual violence within our society, it is important to be mindful of our actions, word choices and topics of discussion, even among friends or people we are close to.

Brenda Payan (she/her/hers) is an undergraduate student studying materials science and engineering. She is a student staff member at the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention Research & Education.