Perhaps alone among crime trends, it’s actually good news when reports of sexual assaults go up.
That means more victims are willing to come forward, said Jenna Cohan of HAVEN from Domestic and Sexual Violence in The Dalles.
In 2017, HAVEN responded to the hospital nine times to help victims of sexual assault, said Cohan, HAVEN’s bi-lingual sexual violence program coordinator. In 2018, they responded 13 times, a 30 percent increase, and this year is on track to meet or exceed that pace.
The #MeToo movement has been a watershed moment, Cohan said, encouraging victims to speak up, show the breadth of the sexual violence problem and hold perpetrators to account.
Cohan said some survivors have specifically cited the #MeToo movement when they came forward to HAVEN to disclose their assault.
April is Sexual Assault Action Month, and officials with HAVEN recently spoke to the Chronicle about their work and the many misimpressions they encounter.
The critical factor in encouraging reporting of sexual assault is to believe victims, Cohan said. Victim blaming still happens, especially in the media.
“We can’t hold victims responsible for preventing their own assault. That’s where our prevention team comes in,” she said.
Alexis Crawford is prevention coordinator for HAVEN. She oversees a 10-week program on consent and empathy that is presented to fifth, eighth and 10th graders in local public schools. It is closely modeled after another successful program, where a study found completers of the program were 70 percent less likely to be sex crime perpetrators than those who had not taken the course, Crawford said.
“I think that gets at the root of what we know to be true: that a lot of crime perpetration is due to attitude,” Crawford explained. “What prevention can do is work on those attitudes while they’re forming.”
The program talks about being respectful across a variety of interactions.
“Say you are trying to get past someone in the aisle [at the grocery store],” Crawford said. The program talks about “making a point to be kind, to be respectful to that person, and not force your way past them or give them a dirty look.”
If respectful behavior is learned in such basic situations as that, you can do it in more serious situations as well, she said.
Another prong of prevention is teaching parents not to force kids to kiss their uncle or hug grandma. Forcing such contacts reinforces the notion that authority figures can dictate what happens to your body, leaving you no choice in the matter, said Tara Koch, executive director of HAVEN.
When it comes to prosecuting sex crimes, the public is not well served by TV shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Cohan said.
The reality is that there are significant hurdles to gaining enough evidence to prosecute a sex crime.
Victims “feel the evidence they have is enough to move a case forward,” she said, and that’s often not the reality, Cohan said.
Usually, sex crimes have no witnesses. And it’s incorrect to believe that a rape kit will provide conclusive evidence. It is “very, very rare,” for example, that rape victims have vaginal or anal tears, Cohan said.
A perpetrator can claim that sex was consensual.
Even strangulation often doesn’t lead to a lot of physical evidence, such as bruising, said Sarah Franklin, community education and communications program coordinator for HAVEN.
“That also plays into the thinking that sexual assault is often violent,” Franklin said. In fact, coercion and threats are used as often as, if not more than, violence.
Franklin listed some types of coercion and threats a perpetrator might say: “’If you really loved me, you’d do A, B, C. I will hurt your kids. I will hurt your pets.’”
That does not take away from the fact that sexual assault itself, of not having control over what happens to your body, is violent, whether or not other physical violence was also used, she said.
Their data also drives home another point: the vast majority of victims know their perpetrator. Of the 95 people who connected with HAVEN specifically for sexual assault last year, only nine did not know the perpetrator, Cohan said.
Another misnomer is that “date rape” drugs are often used to commit sex crimes. “The most commonly used drug for sexual assault is alcohol and we kind of forget about that,” Cohen said.
Also, sex crimes are often a part of domestic violence. Separating the two is also a dangerous misnomer, she said.
Because the vast majority of victims know their perpetrator, there is often some type of relationship at play. Victims may not want to report a partner, and there may even be a difficulty recognizing it as a crime, since the perpetrator will tell the victim it’s normal.
For domestic violence victims, “They have to make the jump to reporting someone that is already holding power over them, already making them unsafe and also likely to hold some financial power over them,” Cohan said.
It is also dangerous to have the notion that “You can tell when somebody’s been raped because they would act in a certain way,” Cohan said.
A further mistaken belief is thinking that sexual violence advocates encourage people not to report to police, Cohan said.
HAVEN advocates are actually banned under state law from contacting police when they learn of a sex crime.
Oregon is one of the few states to exempt advocates for victims of sexual and domestic violence from mandatory reporter laws, Franklin said.
It’s important for HAVEN advocates to have that exemption because there are a lot of safety issues around victims reporting violence, she said.
“We’re talking about people’s actual, legit safety, and we’re talking about people’s choice in a situation where they haven’t had a lot of choice,” she said.
Statistically, the chances of being hurt or killed go up after filing a report against a perpetrator, she said, making it a period of heightened risk.
There’s value in having a resource like HAVEN to go to if a victim doesn’t want to report to police, she said. It is a place where a victim is taken at their word and believed. They don’t have the burden of proof that law enforcement has.
If someone does choose to report a crime, HAVEN advocates will work on a plan first to ensure their safety. That could mean things like getting a driver’s license so they can drive, among other things.