NyThea Tolbert

Sexual Assault Awareness: What You Need to Know

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and it deserves more attention than it gets. Sexual assault affects people both directly and indirectly. Most importantly, it affects people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels –ANYONE!! At least two to three times each week, I learn of someone who was sexually assaulted, and that breaks my heart simply because I know that person’s life will no longer be the same because of that experience. However, I believe it is best to have a better understanding of sexual assault.

Sexual assault is a term that refers to any unwanted sexual act against or without a person’s consent.  It can refer to acts of violence that include any sexual, physical, verbal or visual act that forces against a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention against his/her will. Many use the terms sexual assault and sexual violence interchangeably, and the differences are recognized by states legal definitions. At any rate, we now understand that this act of violence is against one’s will, and affects many people each and every day. To be exact, an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes!

Though I am not an expert on sexual assault/violence, I would like to take the direction of discussing the turmoil that some women may experience because of this crime, but are too afraid to identify themselves as a victim. My interest in public health stemmed from my desire to study maternal and child health and the sexual health of African-American women and adolescents. What I discovered is that many women were unfamiliar with and not knowledgeable about their bodies. I spoke to a group of young girls who once shared with me a few interesting myths about their bodies and their sexual health:

1)    if you bathe in bleach, you could protect yourself from HIV/AIDS.

2)    If I use a condom, then my man will no longer love me and he will leave me

3)    Oral sex is not sex

4)    What is the vulva?

5)    I’ve never looked at ‘myself’ in the mirror. That’s nasty! (referencing her vagina)

After hearing these remarks spoken from a group of school-aged girls, I knew there was a lot of work to do. I begin to think of ways to send the message to young ladies that our bodies are a temple and should be treated as special as we treat our handbags or any other treasured piece in our lives. I noticed how women would react when I would place my handbag on the floor. They would literally react as though it was an abomination! I would just respond “it’s just a handbag!” That is when I had the idea to use this as an analogy with our bodies. In the South, I recall hearing stories of women speaking about a girl’s ‘pocketbook’. This term referenced the vagina, and was commonly used by an older person when speaking to a younger person about their genitals. The reason for this is because you carry it everywhere you go, it opens and closes and it’s made to put things in and out of. I found this analogy comical, but I was able to utilize it to share insight about how girls and women should take care of their bodies as they do their pocketbooks! When I mentally revisit those scenes of the scare from people about me placing my purse on the ground, I would think to myself…”if only we respected our other ‘pocketbooks’ with the same love and care, we would be so powerful.” When I recognized the lack of education about our bodies and how we should be treated, and what should be tolerated in order to maintain a relationship, I realized that it must be addressed to young women that we must not excuse abuse to our bodies or our minds. We need to voice our pain and get help.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey –there is an average of 237,868 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year. I am confident in saying that these numbers are higher; however, many people won’t identify themselves as a victim nor report these acts of crime committed against them. Many may be in a state of shock by who assaulted them, unsure if they should identify the act as a crime, or somehow find that they should blame themselves for what has happened to them. We tend to look at some acts of violence, and assume “that would never be me. I would do [this] and [that]”, but in actuality, you are unsure of how you would respond until you have experienced it.

Though women are not the only victims of sexual violence, I felt the need to direct my focus towards women as I have found that there has to be a voice for those women who may find themselves in relationships that can lead to this type of violence. I urge women to physically examine themselves! How can one or multiple people know what our ‘pocketbooks’ look like, and we not know ourselves! Know that your ‘pocketbook’ is a special treasure…regardless of the brand, color, or size…it is special! Therefore, we must take care of our bodies, demand respect from others, and have voice if ever we feel that we have fallen victim to this crime.


Crisis Hotlines

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE www.rainn.org

Planned Parenthood: 1-800-230-7526; www.plannedparenthood.org

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224 www.thehotline.org


NyThea Tolbert, MPH is an Instructor and External Relations Coordinator with Morehouse School of Medicine’s Master of Public Health (MPH) Program. In addition to serving as an MPH course director, she facilitates student Practicum placements at local, state, federal and non-profit public health organizations which fulfill the requirements of the Council on Education in Public Health. Ms. Tolbert brings to her role as External Relations Coordinator, corporate experience with Merial Limited in Athens, Georgia and with DHL Express where she excelled in sales. At MSM, Ms. Tolbert has worked as the Program Coordinator for the Consortium of African American Public Health Programs and a Project Coordinator in the Satcher Health Leadership Institute. Additionally, she currently serves as the Project Coordinator for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Undergraduate Public Health Summer Program, a collaboration with Columbia University, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Morehouse College, and University of Michigan.

Ms. Tolbert received a BA degree in Biology from the College of Charleston in South Carolina and an MPH from Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA.

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