Guest commentary: Allowing options for sexual assault survivors
Imagine that you’ve just been raped. Perhaps it was by a stranger, in which case you just experienced one of the most traumatic, frightening and intensely violating experiences that a person can endure. Or perhaps it was by someone that you knew, in which case the experience is no less traumatic and leaves you to grapple with profound questions of trust, confusion and self-doubt. Now imagine that this intensely personal experience becomes known to the entire community, because although the media don’t release a victim’s name, coverage often includes enough identifying information that a victim is “outed.” And not only does everyone know, but most everyone will have an opinion, and that opinion will likely be based in our society’s deeply entrenched tendency to judge and blame victims of sexual assault.
When news recently broke that a sexual assault perpetrated by an unknown individual had occurred in the usually crime-free community of Snowmass, it understandably garnered tremendous media and public attention. One woman I heard discussing the incident encapsulated why I believe so many sexual-assault survivors don’t come forward.
“Didn’t her mother teach her not to walk home alone at 2 o’clock in the morning?” she said.
To which I responded, “Didn’t his mother teach him not to rape?”
Although this comment wasn’t meant to be harmful, it serves to illustrate what every rape survivor most fears about a public disclosure: that they will be the one whose actions, or inactions, are scrutinized, not the perpetrator’s.
The standard questions of why she went to his apartment, why she was walking alone, how much she drank and what she was wearing all fundamentally suggest that if someone was sexually assaulted, it was because of their choices or behavior. More subtle, but equally victim-blaming, are the questions of why she didn’t fight back, scream or try to run away, because these questions represent a profound lack of understanding of how individuals respond in traumatic situations. It takes concerted training to program ourselves to use conscious, logical and rational thought during an experience of trauma. Just ask firefighters, law enforcement officers or those in the military about the frequency and intensity of training that is required to overcome our most common response to trauma, which is to simply freeze or even fold into the experience.
As this incident has illustrated, when an individual is sexually assaulted by a stranger in a small community, there are three significant and potentially competing interests involved. First is the question of public safety: Is there a serial predator in our midst? David Lisak’s research on sex offenders suggests that individuals who commit sexual assault will commit the crime an average of six times. This is often a powerful motivation for a victim to choose to report to law enforcement, knowing that their disclosure might prevent the occurrence of another crime and thus another victim. But it also should be a choice made by that victim. To ask a victim at such a devastating and vulnerable time to carry not only their burden but also the pressure and weight to prevent future assaults is unfair to victims. The second factor is the public’s right to information and the media’s duty to provide that information.
In my 15 years of working with survivors of sexual assault, most if not all victims are triggered negatively by the coverage of their cases, and fear of that coverage proves to be a compelling reason that so many sexual assaults are never reported. The third factor is a victim’s recovery and emotional well-being, and ironically this is the area most often overlooked. When a sexual assault occurs, a victim’s power and control are taken away from them. In order for healing to occur, it is critical that they have control around the disclosure of the assault. The other interests cannot and should not be considered more important than the interest of what that individual victim decides they need in order to heal.
We’d all like to believe that if it were us, we would speak out and take on the additional trauma that comes from reporting. However, until you have walked in those shoes, you simply have no idea how difficult those choices are.
The good news is that the Colorado Legislature passed legislation this year that provides victims of sexual assault three reporting options that give them the choice and control that is so critical for their healing: law enforcement reporting, medical reporting and anonymous reporting. The goal is that victims can obtain the necessary medical exam in a timely manner to capture forensic evidence of a sexual assault and receive important medical care at no cost without having to make the overwhelming decision while in an acute state of trauma of whether they want to report the crime to law enforcement. The law also allows a victim to change their reporting method at any time so that if after receiving counseling and support they choose to change from an anonymous or medical report to a law enforcement report, they are able to and they haven’t missed the window to capture evidence that is important to a successful criminal prosecution.
A sexual assault always includes a victim and a perpetrator. But the often overlooked third corner of the triangle is the role that we all, as bystanders, play. Sadly, there was no bystander there to stop the recent sexual assault that occurred in Snowmass. However, I urge the entire community to recognize the role that you play even now in how you think about and discuss cases such as these. This includes having the empathy needed to allow a victim the choice that they need to heal in the manner that they determine is best for them. And just as importantly, it means shifting the conversations that we have so that it is the offender whom we hold responsible for these crimes, not the victim. If you are moved by this incident and want to know how you can help, please consider contacting Response at 970-920-5357 in order to become an advocate on our 24-hour hotline serving to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. If you are a victim of sexual assault and are seeking support, please contact Response’s confidential 24-hour hotline at 970-925-7233.
Jill Gruenberg is the program director for Response.
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