The topic of sexual assault is one that is very serious and important to me, as I have seen the harsh effects firsthands to loved ones in my life. That is why I have dedicated the time to researching this issue throughout the semester and become a citizen activist who works towards bettering the lives of victims and preventing as many future cases as possible.
Looking at the background of sexual assault is a key component in best understanding where we should go from here. This topic is a very serious and sensitive one, as many fall victims to the various forms of sexual violence yearly. Right now, in the United States, sexual violence is among the most commonly commited crimes, yet also the most underreported. This is extremely harmful to both the healing process of victim and the prevention of future assaults. Victims of sexual crimes are already at risk of a long list of issues regarding their physical and mental health. In addition to the physical injury that can be inflicted during the assault, there are also increased risks of sexual and reproductive health problems. The mental health risks are just as serious, as many victims suffer from depression, which can eventually lead to worse. Their social well-being is also often damaged, as they pull away and isolate themselves from loved ones, close the idea of personal relationships off, and find themselves being scared of everyday. Adding the factor of being “silenced” due to a legal system that fails them certainly does not help the situation. Ultimately, these unresolved issues that sexual assault victims face can lead to death, by matters such as suicide or HIV infection. (Effects of Sexual Violence, n.d.) Analyzing and addressing the current state of how the legal system treats perpetrators and cases, and how society looks at victims is what needs to be done so we can work towards the much-needed improvement within society and the system.
Over the last two decades, efforts have certainly been made to change the culture and stigmas surrounding sexual assault, and to empower victims to speak up. That is definitely a huge step, and not to be downplayed, however despite these attempts, these crimes are still not being fully addressed as needed. Looking at the facts and statistics will better explain why.
On average, there are over 433,000 victims, age 12 and older, of rape and sexual assault every year in the United States. To put it in perspective, that’s essentially saying that every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Looking at women in the United States specifically, about 40% have experienced sexual violence, and nearly 80% of those victims experienced their first assault before the age of 25. (Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, n.d.) These are large numbers that should be decreasing, when in reality, they’ve been increasing over the last few years. For the past five years, there has been a 1.4% to 2.6% continuous increase in total number of sexual assault cases in the United States. This is, simply put, not okay.
As if the increasing number of cases isn’t disturbing enough, the facts on reports and consequences do not give much hope. The Department of Justice noted that only an estimated 19% of rapes, both completed and attempted, are reported every year. One may wonder why? Why not tell a loved one, an authoritative figure or law enforcement about what happened? Well, the culture surround rape still leaves the victim feeling like the incident is something that they should feel shame for, which has created a resistance and fear to share their story, whether publicly or privately.
One effort that has started an overall positive shift is the “Me-Too” movement. This movement was created to encourage victims to not feel shame, and to take that step-in healing, whether it be telling their story anonymously, talking to a friend, putting their attackers name out, or by simply saying “me too”. This movement took off globally in 2017, as many actors and actresses in Hollywood started speaking out about their own experiences, and many in the spotlight found themselves on the opposite end, being exposed of their sexual assault and facing consequences. (Me Too. Movement, 2020) As noted, this movement has done a lot of good, but it has also been ineffective in certain aspects. Due to the fact that it was gaining so much attention and there were many stories that started being posted, many people started to doubt them – claiming that they were lying and seeking attention, because “why would you decide to speak up NOW, years later?” and demanding proof of these allegations. Unfortunately, there often isn’t much proof of sexual assault unless immediately reported, which is not common. Despite the fact that only about 5% of sexual assault reports filed have been proven false, there is still a trend seen where it appears society would rather blindly believe the perpetrator instead of blindly believing the victim. This is a huge reason why for every 1000 rapes in the United States, 995 perpetrators will go unpunished. (Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, n.d.)
If you look at the state of our country right now, the current President of the United States, Donald Trump, has 26 public sexual allegations to his name – yet he has still been given the power to be the leader of the free world. (Mindock, 2020) The message that sends is extremely damaging, as victims have to sit suffering in silence while their assaulter is “on top of the world” living life freely, taking high positions of power, such as the president.
After reviewing all of this information, it is quite obvious that action needs to be taken. Deciding which course, or courses, of action to take starts with stepping back and looking at the big picture.
One area that needs more attention is better education. Educating one-on-one starts at home from the time children are young. Hearing phrases like “boys will be boys” when males act inappropriately, is an example of the language we hear from an early point in our lives that can be damaging. Eliminating this type of language, as well as, educating our youth will lessen the frequency of cases, and teach them that when someone is assaulted, they should encourage the victim to not feel shame, or to not feel shame if they are the victims. This will ultimately allow them to feel comfortable seeking the help they need.
In addition, using resources to create better national educating programs, as well as better sexual assault education in schools and colleges would be beneficial. There are already many organizations in existence that are dedicated to solving the widespread problem of sexual assault. One being the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, or RAINN. This organization states that it “…carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.” RAINN uses their donations to help survivors and work towards putting a stop to sexual assault. They do this by offering a hotline that victims can contact, educating people on prevention and recovery, and additionally by assisting with criminal trials. (Programs and Expertise, n.d.)
As may become victims of sexual assault before even reaching college, working on putting educational courses into more middle and high schools is a key component in eliminating these incidents. These courses should focus on teaching about consent, educating on the various forms of sexual assault and promoting healthy relationships and sexuality. Additionally, it is be important to explain what do if one finds themselves in a position being sexually assaulted, or as a bystander.
Considering that college students are the age group that is at an elevated risk of becoming a victim of sexual assault, there additionally needs to be a “clean-up” of policies in college sexual assault matters. Reviewing what is already in place, and figuring how to adjust those policies, while also creating new ones needs to be done by colleges nationwide. 11.2% of all college students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, experience rape or sexual assault. With that being said, college-age victims often do not report their assault for reasons such as, not believing they had enough proof to report, they did not want the perpetrator to get in trouble, and even believing authorities wouldn’t help. (Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics, n.d.) Title IX is a civil rights law that under it, protects against sexual harassment and violence, such as, rape and assault. This law is enforced in every school, and implemented by requiring the distribution of a policy, Title IX coordinators, and public procedures. (Know Your Rights, 2020) Title IX has certainly helped and benefited many; however, we are still seeing perpetrators get away with assault with little to no punishment. Considering that, we need to restore some balance in a system that seems to still favor the assaulter. This needs to be done by continuously updating policies, enforcing new students to take brief courses on sexual assault, and by taking extra steps as an institution to break down stigmas.
In addittion to bettering policies at colleges and universities, our nation needs better laws regarding this matter. There have been numerous court cases that have resulted in little to no punishment for the assaulter, which as already said, is extrememly damaging to victims.
One of the better-known examples of this, which I already talked about in a previous post of mine, is the infamous Brock Turner case in 2016, which started in January of 2015 at Stanford University, when two graduate students biked by and saw Turner raping a heavily intoxicated woman. The students were able to tackle him to the ground, after Turner attempted to flee the scene, and he was arrested. Meanwhile, the victim came back to it after being taken to the hospital, where she was tested and treated. Turner claimed it was consensual intercourse, while the victim didn’t recall a thing. Turner was arrested and charged, and at that point he withdrew from Stanford, as the school had yet to kick him out. He continued to claim it was consensual, despite two witnesses and officers seeing her unconscious at the scene of the attack. In February of 2015, he was released on a $150,000 bail. Turner blamed party culture, and came up with excuses, and others came to his defense, talking about how lovely he was, and showcasing that he was a star-swimmer for the school. His father even claimed that jail time for his son, would be “too harsh”, and that “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner received a sentence of only six months, because the judge felt he believed more time spent in jail would have a “severe impact” on the life and future of Turner, who once had “Olympic aspirations”. (Sanchez, 2016) Ultimately, only served three months, as he was eligible to get out early. Looking at how the case unfolded, along with the words spoken by Turner’s father, sympathizing with a rapist, and just knowing the fact that Brock Turner, a rapist who selfishly changed that girl’s life forever, only served a few months in jail, is why it is so very important to work on improving policies and laws at all levels. Allowing these rapists to get off with “a slap on the wrist” only deepens the stigma, and worsens the culture surrounding sexual assault entirely. Laws surrounding sexual assault and rape must be tightened, and strengthened, so that victims can receive the justice they deserve. In order to do this, our lawmakers must work together to create universal procedure, laws and consequences. Air-tightened laws definitely won’t eliminate rape and sexual assault entirely, but it will reduce cases.
Lastly, I have come to realize that more government funded resources for victims is necissary, as many victims remain suffering long after their attack. Offering more resources will open the door for a positive cycle in ending the silent suffering that sexual assault victims have been forced to go through for many, many years now. Using these resources to better improve the Acts already in place, such as, the Clery, Safer, and Victims of Crimes Acts is one important step. Additionally, we need to see more centers for victims. These centers should provide services for treating both physical and emotional disorders caused by their assault. Sexual Assault Centers would benefit so many if they were scattered throughout all 50 states, placing them within a certain radius. Offering this will decrease the number of sexual assault related disorders and deaths, as it will be a “safe house” for victims to not only seek treatment, but simply not feel so alone.
Throughout my research this semester, I have grown to be even more passionate about this topic than when I began, as it is one that needs more focus on improving. I hope that anyone who finds themselves reading this will do their part in listening to victims, speaking up for those who feel they can not, and fighting for a change.
Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2020, from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence
Effects of Sexual Violence. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://www.rainn.org/effects-sexual-violence
Know Your Rights: Title IX Prohibits Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Where You Go to School. (2020, August 26). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/title-ix-rights-201104.html
Me too. Movement. (2020, October 16). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://metoomvmt.org/
Mindock, C. (2020, November 06). Full list of the women who have accused President Donald Trump of sexual assault. Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-sexual-assault-allegations-all-list-misconduct-karen-johnson-how-many-a9149216.html
Programs and Expertise. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://rainn.org/programs-and-expertise
Sanchez, R. (2016, June 11). Stanford rape case: Inside the court documents. CNN. Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/10/us/stanford-rape-case-court-documents/index.html.
Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence