When sexual assaults occur, let's start by believing the victims when they come forward.Sexual assault is an intensely personal and demeaning experience. It encompasses a wide range of human …
When sexual assaults occur, let's start by believing the victims when they come forward.
Sexual assault is an intensely personal and demeaning experience. It encompasses a wide range of human emotions, motivations, prejudices and traumas. Too often, the victim of sexual violence is not believed, and faces the unnerving prospect of trying to convince others about the assault. Or they are forced to learn how to live with the trauma and shame for the rest of their lives.
Frequently, victims are accused of falsely reporting rape because they "regret" the sex, or are seeking money or revenge, or are simply crazy. But false reports are rare. Studies show rates of false reporting for sexual assault are 2-8 percent. And most sexual assaults - 68 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics - are never reported.
Why? Because victims know too well that their account of the incident will likely be met with skeptical, even hostile reactions, even from loved ones. When victims are met with doubt from people closest to them, they are unlikely ever to try to tell another person about the assault or get help.
Tragically, when someone tells us she or he was sexually assaulted, we often try to distance ourselves to protect against the possibility that something terrible happened and that it could happen to us. We blame the victim: "What did s/he do to make that happen?" "She's exaggerating" or "seeking attention." Imagine what it would be like to get the courage up to report the incident to law enforcement and be treated dismissively.
Now, let's turn this around.
Imagine what it would be like to be believed from the start. To get unquestioning support and comfort, from law enforcement and people close to you. Statistics show that those who are believed when first disclosing assault are more likely to seek legal, medical, mental health and spiritual support to help heal.
Don't ask for details unless the survivor wants to talk. Don't ask if they were drinking or why they were with that person. If s/he is willing, call Holy Cross Hospital's certified sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) program at (575) 751-8990. There is no cost or billing to a victim for a SANE exam. And, CAV-trained victim-advocates can accompany people to the exam and support them through the legal process if they choose to report.
End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) is a world-wide organization whose "Start by Believing" Campaign goes right to the heart of this issue. EVAWI strongly believes victim-centered, trauma-informed initiatives are vital to our country's progress in responding to sexual violence. When we do not start by believing the accounts of survivors, and conduct thorough and fair evidence-based investigations, perpetrators remain free to abuse others.
This violence can continue unchecked for decades, EVAWI notes, as in the cases of USA Gymnastics' team doctor Larry Nassar, comedian Bill Cosby and perpetrators within the Catholic Church. As one of the women assaulted by Nassar said while standing with other victims at the 2018 ESPY Awards, "If just one adult had listened, believed and acted, the people standing before you on this stage would have never met him."
Make your own personal pledge to Start by Believing if someone tells you they were sexually assaulted.
Most of all, this campaign starts with you, me and everyone in our community. So, if someone tells you about a sexual assault, take a breath and start by believing.
Malinda Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence, Inc. (CAV) which offers free confidential support and assistance for adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence and stalking; community and school violence prevention programs; reeducation BIP groups for domestic violence offenders; counseling; shelter; transitional housing; and a community thrift store. To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV's 24-hour crisis line at (575) 758-9888 or visit TaosCAV.org.
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