To the Editor:
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and as it has drawn to a close, I want to express my deep gratitude to everyone who sponsored, participated in and supported Safe Passage’s ”Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” and “Take Back the Night” events. We’re grateful and humbled by the outpouring of community support and participation and by the bravery of the many survivors of sexual assault who shared their stories.
Raising awareness is only the beginning.
There are many misconceptions about sexual assault in our society, especially the myth that rape is committed by a male stranger under threat of force and immediately reported to the police. Many people believe this description is the only “real rape.” Each assault, however, is different and each victim deserves our support. Unfortunately, victims consistently share that they are doubted, harassed and revictimized rather than supported. As few as 1.1 percent of sexual assaults nationwide are ever prosecuted, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Know that trauma can cause reactive behaviors that make testifying in court or sharing one’s story difficult. Victims may disassociate, minimize their experiences or distance themselves from the trial process to avoid re-engaging with strong emotions and fear. Many victims suffer flashbacks and strong emotional reactions to triggers connected to their trauma. This can make testifying (especially with an aggressive defense attorney) feel like another attack. This does not mean that victims are untruthful or that their memories are unreliable. Survivors may have behaviors that are adaptations to coping with trauma, but their memories are as reliable as any other witness. If we all are to truly help victims and hold perpetrators accountable, everyone must learn about the impact of trauma. If victims are given a safe, nonthreatening environment to tell their story, there is no reason to doubt their credibility or memory.
How do we fix this flaw in our system?
We need to start by believing. #StartByBelieving is a nationwide movement for advocates, law enforcement, judges and communities, calling on us all to start by believing a victim when they report sexual assault and trauma. This does not mean evidence isn’t collected and considered, it simply means we begin from a place of supporting and believing survivors. All across the world police departments, universities, communities and even entire states have pledged to #StartByBelieving.
April is over, but our work isn’t.
Mary Ellen Schaid
Executive director of Safe Passage