Sexual assault is a crime that our society continues to come to terms with. Sierra Community House, the regional social services hub, explains how to get help or support loved ones.
~ Mayumi Elegado
In the light of recent events, what should we know as a community about sexual violence? What sources are available for victims?
Caution: This article may be triggering for some readers.
Far too often, when people think of sexual assault, they envision a stranger hiding in the dark then jumping out and attacking an unsuspecting woman. In fact, 85% of sexual assaults are committed by an acquaintance of the victim. The assailant might be a neighbor, coworker, friend, family member, or even a partner or spouse. Statistics show that most sexual assaults occur at or near the victim’s home. According to Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and one out of six women will experience an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. While sexual assaults are most commonly reported by survivors identifying as female, sexual violence exists across the gender spectrum, and Sierra Community House serves all survivors, regardless of gender identity.
Before we go further, let’s get some clarity on terms. Sexual assault can be defined as any unwanted sexual contact or behavior. Rape is more specific to unwanted sexual penetration and is a more common legal term. Both definitions can vary by state and jurisdictions, but for the sake of this article, this is how we will define them.
But does it happen here?
Yes. People are often surprised to learn that very human issues like sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse occur in our region. It is hard to imagine these crimes occurring in an area renowned for its world class ski resorts and unparalleled outdoor recreational opportunities, but they do. And when it happens, Sierra Community House is here to help. This past year, Sierra Community House served 49 victims and survivors of sexual violence. Through the agency’s Crisis Intervention Program, we have served victims and survivors of sexual violence in the region since 1982. Help is always available through our 24-Hour Helpline, (800) 736-1060. Our trained crisis advocates provide confidential services that include emotional support, safety planning, therapy, and both short- and long-term shelter.
We are contacted by those who have experienced a recent act of sexual violence, but also by those who were victimized sometimes even as a child, who are experiencing symptoms of unprocessed trauma. Our role is to share options and resources for victims and empower and support them to make decisions that they feel are most appropriate for their healing journey. Other services include financial support for relocation and medical expenses, support in accessing food, support with restraining orders, and transportation costs.
When working with survivors, we always start by letting them know the abuse against them was not their fault. We start their healing journey by saying the most important words — “We believe you.” This is something victims rarely hear, and often victims are blamed for being assaulted. When someone is mugged on the street, the line of questioning is rarely, “Why were you walking on that street? Why were you out at that time? Why were you carrying cash or wearing that fancy watch?” Far too often, victims of sexual violence are asked, “Why were you out with that person? What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Were you asking for it?” Sexual assault is likely one of the only crimes where the burden of proof is on the victim.
Sexual violence and the legal system
Some victims and survivors choose to report to law enforcement. If they choose this, Sierra Community House works collaboratively with law enforcement while supporting whatever decision the survivor makes. We provide accompaniment to interviews with law enforcement, healthcare and medical visits, as well as any court and legal proceedings. If needed, we can also provide legal representation for survivors. However, most sexual assaults are unreported. RAINN data shows that more than two-thirds of sexual assaults are never reported to the police. There are many reasons for this, including self-blame, threats from the person who committed the violence, fear of retaliation, fear of not being believed, and being retraumatized. This can be especially difficult in a small town, especially if the perpetrator is well known. It is also well documented that perpetrators are rarely held accountable. According to the RAINN website, “out of 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free.”
It is not surprising then that most sexual assaults are not reported. However, reporting sexual assaults immediately is critical for gathering physical evidence. One of the ways this is gathered is through a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) exam performed by a specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE Nurse). If a victim chooses to have a SART exam, a Sierra Community House advocate can provide accompaniment and support during the exam. The SANE nurse will assess injuries and collect physical evidence. The evidence can then be used to help with prosecution. If an assault occurs and too much time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to collect evidence to support the case, but cases can move forward without this evidence, and Sierra Community House will provide support regardless of the exam or prosecution.
If you know someone who has experienced sexual violence, the most important thing to do is to listen. You do not need to know all the answers; your support is the most critical thing to provide during this time. For more information on what to do if you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, call our helpline at (800) 736-1060, visit our website at sierracommunityhouse.org, or call 911.
~ Paul Bancroft, Sierra Community House Executive Director