If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit hotline.rainn.org
It goes without saying, but this article requires a major trigger warning. I will be discussing topics ranging from harassment, assault, rape, torture and murder. If the article becomes too traumatic to continue, feel free to close out of it.
One thing every human can agree upon is the desire to stay in control. We feel most comfortable when we have control of our decisions. However, some people struggle to find control with their own choices which causes them to try controlling others — whether with honest or ill-minded intentions. One of the biggest forms of poor intentions when it comes to control struggles is sexual violence. Sexual assault at its core is a loss of control. Because of the stigma around this topic, society will often disregard the trauma of a victim and/or survivor. There are two ways to look at solving this problem: preventative and reactive methods. Both solutions will come with a handful of benefits, but the only way to get those benefits is to work together as a society to stop the spread of this crime.
What is sexual assault?
Understanding the definition of sexual assault is essential to labeling assault. Sexual assault is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “illegal sexual contact that usually involves force upon a person without consent or is inflicted upon a person who is incapable of giving consent or who places the assailant in a position of trust or authority.” What this means is being forced, against your will, into sexual activities. This definition, although very clear, does not provide the types of sexual assault people should look out for. Sexual assault could be any of the following: rape, forcible sodomy, forcible object penetration, marital rape, unwanted sexual touching, sexual contact with minors, incest, acquaintance rape or any unwanted/coerced sexual contact. None of these situations become invalid when alcohol or drugs are involved; however, people will often try to say otherwise. This is why it is very important to know what sexual assault is and how to classify the situation.
I will mostly cover instances where women are the subject; however, it is important to note anyone, regardless of gender, can be a victim and/or survivor of sexual assault.
The emotional aftermath
From the moment someone experiences sexual assault, their life will continuously be affected by it. Survivors often experience a vast range of emotional trauma because of an assault. These traumas often include, but are not limited to, depression, flashbacks, PTSD, self-harm, substance abuse, dissociation, panic attacks, eating disorders, sleep disorders and/or suicide. These are only the emotional traumas; there are many physical traumas as well. Every survivor is different and every level of trauma they deal with after is just as different. Through a series of interviews done by the New York Times, multiple survivors spoke out about their healing process and the toll it has taken on them personally. One of the women interviewed, Melissa, explained how she never wanted to open up about her experience. She would often respond back to comments with, “But I’m fine. It’s ok!” However, for her the constant burying of her pain caught up with her. It started with officially being diagnosed with PTSD, then to having memory loss, mood swings and insomnia. She even began to have heart palpitations. Melissa explained the extent she has gone to in order to make her problems subside. She has been prescribed not only Ambien but also Xanax. As if medical treatment wasn’t enough she also makes a point to receive acupuncture. She owns acupressure beads and even a grounding stone. Melissa expressed, “The last six months of my life have been fucking hell.” Melissa’s story goes to show that even taking steps to lower your risks of trauma outbreaks, the journey to recovery is not linear and far from pleasant.
The legal aftermath
College-age adults run a high risk of experiencing some form of sexual assault. In 2018, Emily Borchardt, a University of Texas student, was in a ride share on her way home. The other passenger incapacitated her through choking. She woke up in a motel room, where she would be assaulted for the next 12 hours by a total of three men. When she was released a few strangers helped her call 911. At the beginning of the investigation everything seemed to be being handled with correct protocol. Originally, the investigation held promise when the lead detective found one of the three men. When asked if the man participated in the assault, he denied ever meeting her. The case took an even more downhill turn when the rape kit came back three months later showing that man’s DNA, proving he lied about meeting her. Despite all this, he wasn’t arrested. Later the article brings up the point that the lead detective failed to collect evidence from the scene claiming the rooms had been cleaned before he could get to them. He also stated how there was no way to get security video since it had been lost. Although it was later heard that the detective made no efforts to stop the cleaning crew from coming in, and he had seen the video footage, he did not obtain a copy. When he went back, the video was recorded over. Due to the negligence on the behalf of the police, Borchardt and her mother decided to take legal action against the police. The New York Times article does not specify when the lawsuit was filed, but the following information is statements provided following the official filing. Police in the area released a brief statement claiming “all agencies involved have acted appropriately,” in response to the concerns brought up in the lawsuit. Similarly, Mindy Montford, prosecutor, stated, “the evidence in this case did not meet legal standards to proceed with a criminal prosecution. I stand by that decision.” While this case was investigated by police, the blatant disregard for evidence and lack of prosecution, furthers the point of sexual assault being one of the lowest crimes on many detectives’ list of priorities.
Emotional trauma is not the only discouraging outcome, survivors may also experience altered help due to the negative stigma surrounding sexual assault. Sexual violence is a topic often swept under the rug. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), “only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. That means more than two out of three go unreported.” No matter how you phrase it — this statistic is horrifying. The second leading cause of not reporting is fear of the police not believing them or not doing anything about it. Police will often group rape victims and/or survivors based on one aspect of the case. He/she didn’t report right away, didn’t fight back, changed their story or doesn’t act like a “victim” — these are all unfair categories to just throw someone into.
Unfortunately, the stigma of sexual assault can often prevent victims and/or survivors from getting justice. Along with many other reasons, survivors are not just limited to only two ways of feeling or coping. So when a story comes up on the news about how another rapist walks free it deters people from reporting. No one wants to go through a trauma over and over again just to be told, “we can’t do anything; in fact, we question if you are even telling the truth.” Yet another horrifying statistic from RAINN is, “out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free.” This means only 25 out of every 1,000 perpetrators are incarcerated. That’s .025 percent. If a someone is lucky enough to make it all the way to court with their case, they still only have a .025 percent chance of actually getting justice. This percentage is incredibly low and is indeed one of the top reasons survivors will always hesitate to come forward.
What can we do?
Sexual assault is a topic that people often have varying opinions on, but no matter how you look at the topic we must find ways to prevent or at the very least lower the number of cases. The easiest prevention method would be to teach the importance of consent from a young age. This will not be an immediate change, but society will start to see the effects once the younger generations begin to grow up and realize the importance of what they were taught since they were young. We can also look at possible law enforcement changes. Members of the police have spoken out that nearly two-thirds of members have no training on determining sexual assault kit results. In fact, “Some were unfamiliar with basic female anatomy. The report quotes one officer saying: ‘I have to Google stuff like labia majora.'” The change we need to look at is requiring more training and teaching for police officers and relevant authorities. We can do this by adding a required sexual assault awareness course for police recruits in the academy to take. This course would teach basic female and male anatomy, the proper ways to read sexual assault kit results, how to properly interview survivors, and proper etiquette while in the presence of a survivor and their families. This would allow for no confusion with sexual assault claims and allow officers to know what lab techs mean when explaining kit results. This would let officers know exactly what they need to look for and a better understanding on the basis of the crime. Both these solutions will not show immediate change; however, we will see a gradual integration of a more educated society and police force.
When looking at sexual assault, preventative solutions are not the only option. We can also look at reactive solutions. After an assault, victims and/or survivors will be examined by a nurse in order to get evidence to put into a ‘rape kit.’ This rape kit can include, but is not limited to, blood samples, DNA samples, fingernail scrapings, semen samples (if available), pictures of bruises and injuries, hair samples (any that came off clothing and even a hair cut from your head), urine samples and the clothes you were wearing during the assault. Those are the physical aspects of the kit, but while the nurse is doing this examination they will also be asking you questions about your assault. Once the nurse has completed the examination they will pass the rape kit on to the police. Often times police will trash rape kits after a case has gone cold. A more adequate way to keep the kits would be to keep the kits until the statute of limitations has run out. If the state in which the case took place does not have a statute of limitation then keep them for a minimum of 20 years. In fact, to insure kits are being kept for the proper amount of time police should be doing annual verification and inventory of the kits. This could include confirming the location and time in location of all kits. This would insure a case will not be thrown out because of a less obvious conviction. To take this a step further we should continue eliminating the statute of limitations completely. Survivors are often unaware of the limitations and gain enough courage shortly after the statute has expired. Even though the evidence was not any more “stale” than it was weeks before the statute ran out. These are just a few of the shifts we can make to help with the aftermath of assaults.
These solutions will not just change the physical aspects of assault but more “behind the scenes” aspects as well such as, creating awareness. If we as a society start to do the bare minimum and talk about the topic it will start to lessen the ignorance surrounding the topic. Awareness is the first step to change. However, it is often mistaken for the only step. We need to be making logical, active and proactive changes to the climate of our society. That’s why steps such as teaching consent and gender anatomy will allow members of society to see the obvious problems with sexual assault and begin to decrease assaults not just acknowledge them.
Decreasing sexual assault through teaching is one of the many benefits that will come from these solutions, another is removing the stigma surrounding sexual assault. Survivors are often discouraged from coming forward because they fear backlash along with multiple other fears due to the stigma. Once we implement laws and courses that enforce the teaching of what sexual assault really is, the stigma will be eliminated or, at the very least, shrink. The only way we will start to see benefits go into effect is by taking the sexual assault conversation as serious as it truly is.
Awareness is not the only thing we can do to stop the spread of sexual assault. We have to look to broaden our sights and set them on solving the problem, not just bringing light to the problem. So, when looking at someone who as claimed they were assaulted instead of insisting they are lying, look to see how much it took them to admit they were stripped of their control. Try think about what it would be like in their shoes.
Throughout this article I used a variety of sources. Each source covered a vast amount of information. I was not able to include every detail from every source — without making this 100 plus pages long. I highly encourage you look into these sources and additional ones. The first step to decreasing sexual violence is knowledge. I have also included additional sources I looked into but was unable to fit into my article.
RAINN.org: This is a great source for statistics surrounding sexual violence. They also offer a variety of resources such as hotlines, courses, definitions, warning signs and many others.
“When sexual assaults made history”: History.com put together a decent amount of sexual assault stories from all throughout history. This is a great source to learn more about how sexual violence and its stigma has shifted.
“Types of sexual assault”: This is a list of the vast types of sexual assault. The list was complied by Marshall University’s Women’s and Gender Center.
“Surviving the long-term trauma of sexual violence”: This is an article written by Kate Ryan for the New York Times. It examines 30 survivors, including herself, and their stories surrounding the aftermath of their assault.
“Destroyed”: CNN investigated the protocols and treatment of rape kits. This article provides a lot of intense and horrifying stories the public is often not made aware of.
“National best practices for sexual assault kits”: This is a PDF put together by the National Institute of Justice. This is an agency used for research, development and evaluation under the U.S. Department of Justice. This is a very detailed and thorough guide to the ideal handling of sexual assault kits.
“These rape victims had to sue to get the police to investigate”: Valeriya Safronova and Rebecca Halleck of the New York Times interviewed and gathered information from a variety of survivors. The survivors included had cases that were disregarded; therefore, they took legal action.
“Shifting the Paradigm”: This is a toolkit put forth by the American College Health Association. It provides a variety of tips and suggestions to eliminate the stigma surrounding sexual assault.