National Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month

In case you’e not aware, April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. It’s a topic that’s close to my heart because my current work in process relates specifically to sexual assault on a college campus.

Campus Sexual Assault is not new, and I don’t believe that it’s “worse” than it ever was. But it’s FINALLY getting the attention it deserves. Survivors are becoming more and more empowered to tell their stories and report the crimes. The stigma of the “rape victim” still exists, but the tide is slowly turning and the focus is beginning to be placed where it belongs: not on the victim, but the perpetrator.

I first became concerned about the subject when my daughter left for college in 2014. That fall, I was invited to a friend’s house to watch a screening of The Hunting Ground, a documentary about the very real issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Shortly after that viewing, I started the first few chapters of my campus assault novel. However, I soon threw away what I’d started after talking to survivors. The novel I intended to write wasn’t the “right” story and would not have done the justice to the survivors that I want the story to do. So I started again at square one with a different story. And this is what you should know: There are many “victims” in a single sexual assault. The primary victim is the man or woman who has been assaulted. But then there are secondary victims that I refer to as the “collateral damage.” They are the people who surround BOTH the victim and the perpetrator, they are the parents of the victim, and they are also the parents, siblings and close family members of the perpetrator himself. The only non-victim is the perpetrator.

Statistics say that most victims know their assaulter. If that’s true, then it’s reasonable to believe that the victim and the assaulter have friends in common…they are the collateral damage as those secondary victims try to wrap their heads around such a heinous crime. For example, if John’s best friend or Susan’s boyfriend is accused of rape, what does that say about John or Susan? Does it make them complicit? Does it mean they have a bad “picker” for friends? No. Whether you are the friend or relative of an alleged rapist does NOT in and of itself reflect negatively upon you. It is not your fault and it does not define you. HOW YOU RESPOND, however, defines who you are. Do you stand beside your friend because you can’t imagine he (or she) would ever perpetrate such an awful crime because it’s completely outside anything YOU would do and, therefore, you can’t begin to imagine that you would choose a friend who might? I can assure you that if your friend has been accused of sexual assault, your friend PROBABLY has committed the offense.

The facts are that very few people who “cry rape” do so falsely. In fact, statistics tell us that THE PERCENTAGE OF PEOPLE WHO FALSELY ACCUSE RAPE IS THE SAME AS THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO FALSELY REPORT ANY OTHER CRIME–roughly six percent. And yet, it’s the only crime where the victim is often doubted.

Let’s think about this for a minute… Your best friend, Katie, reports that her car has been stolen. She parked it on the street in front of her house last night, and when she woke up this morning to go to work, it was gone. How do you respond? Do you accuse her of lying? Do you ask her, “Are you sure you parked it in front of your house?” Do you immediately assume she’s making it up and that she just wants to get someone in trouble? What about your buddy, Jeff, who reports that he was walking home from work one night and was mugged and beaten up for his wallet and valuables? Do you say, “Are you sure you didn’t really want to give those guys your valuables? How was the perpetrator supposed to know that you didn’t want to give away your valuables?” Or, “What were you wearing when you were approached?” No. You assume that Jeff is telling the truth…because he probably is. Just like a victim of sexual assault is more likely than not telling the truth. DO some “victims” of sexual assault make up their stories? Yes…but again, the percentage of false reports is equally as rare for rape as it is for muggings, burglary, vandalism, theft, and any other felony act involving a victim–six percent or less.

It’s also true to remember that only 3% of all accused rapists ever see a courtroom. Why is that? Well, (1) because survivors often feel shamed and either refuse to report or refuse to testify; and (2) because the standard of evidence to prove a felony is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In many cases, sexual assault comes down to a he said/she said situation. There are rarely witnesses, and many victims fail to go to the ER for a rape kit and examination. You see, shock, denial, shame and guilt seem to be the first lines of defense for rape survivors. First, the shock of “I can’t believe this happened.” Second, “Did it really happen, or did I imagine it?” And third, “Did I do something to cause it? Is it somehow my fault?” The answer to that last question is a an absolute NO. A rape victim is not responsible for the bad decisions of her assaulter, EVEN IF the victim is under the influence of drugs or alcohol and not in her right mind. The definition of rape is, quite frankly, a sexual act without affirmative consent, and one cannot give consent if not is “trashed” and/or “unconscious.” So the victim blaming for those who are assaulted while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a load of crap.  And finally, (4) Guilt.  When you consider that most victims know their assaulters, there is often in that period after the rape of “guilt” in terms of not wanting to get their “friend” in trouble.  You see, sexual assault is so personal that not only does the victim experience significant shock, but that shock leads to unclear thinking.  “Steve was my friend…he’ll get into trouble for this.”  Most people aren’t accustomed to getting their friends in trouble.  And once again, even when a victim does come forward, he/she is often blamed.  It’s the only crime where the victim is the object of scrutiny and unfair blame.

Still not convinced?  Consider this parody by comedienne Tracy Ullman as she examines treating the victim of a mugging in the same manner that many rape victims are treated. Does this seem wrong to you?

In April 2011, the United States Department of Education issue a “Dear Colleague Letter” to all public institutions of education which outlined the responsibility of those educational institutions receiving public funds. In it, the letter outlines the responsibilities of the high school or university when a rape is reported, and specifically demands that an immediate and appropriate action is taken when there is reason to suspect that a rape has taken place among its students.  It requires an investigation and an action for parties found “responsible.”  Because this process is a Civil Rights issue as it relates to public education and carries no jail time, the burden of evidence is much less to prove “responsibility” than a criminal trial.  Instead of requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt, it uses the “preponderance of evidence.”  Specifically, it requires the consideration of whether  it’s more reasonable than not that the action occurred.  For this reason, many victim of sexual assault are seeking justice through their education institutions either instead of through the criminal justice system, or concurrently.  And it is not out of the realm of possibility that a perpetrator may be found “responsible” in a school’s investigation but criminal charges are never filed against them.   This, again, is because the standard of evidence is different.  Think back for a moment to the OJ Simpson trial. Simpson was found “not guilty” by a jury in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and  Ron Goldman, but was later found “liable” for their deaths in the subsequent civil trial and ordered to pay the victims’ families $25 Million in punitive damages. Why is that?  For the same reason that sexual assault victims may receive “justice” from a university who expels or suspends their assaulters under the standard of “preponderance of evidence” for the civil process versus the standard of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal trial.  Quite frankly, a sexual assault case will never see charges or a courtroom if the county’s prosecutor questions whether he/she has enough evidence to convince a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  EVEN WHEN THEY’RE CERTAIN A CRIME HAS BEEN COMMITTED, they will not bring charges on that crime if they can’t collect enough convincing evidence to prove it.  That, my friends, is why so many rapists walk free. That is why so many victims who report assaults are called “liars.”  Because, as citizens of the United States, we EXPECT that justice will be served.  We EXPECT that when a crime has been committed, it will be prosecuted.  We DON’T expect that a prosecutor will pass on a crime he feels certain has been committed just based on his ability to collect the evidence to prosecute.  We expect justice to be served, but 97% of the time, sexual assault survivors receive no justice through the criminal court.  And that is why the Dear Colleague Letter related to the Title IX responsibilities of a public education system is so important.  You can see this letter by using this link:  Dear Colleague Title IX Letter, or go straight to the FACTS page which outlines in short what the letter entails and what responsibilities are required of public education institutions.  Use this link:  FACTS about Title IX and Public Education.

As students begin receiving acceptance letters to  universities, it would be worthwhile for families to screen The Hunting Ground documentary.  Understand what’s happening on college campuses, and understand that NO COLLEGE CAMPUS IS IMMUNE.  This is happening on EVERY college campus, and the only thing that separates the “good” universities from the “bad” in terms of sexual assault is  how those universities respond to reports of sexual violence.

Many of you will look online at your choice university’s official statistics related to crime on campus and will see small numbers reported for sexual assault.  BUYER BEWARE:  If those numbers are especially small, then two things are happening:  (1) victims are not reporting, which should make you ask yourself “WHY aren’t victims reporting?” or (2) the university is likely not handling these reports appropriately and, instead, may be covering them up to cover their own reputations.

The Hunting Ground documentary explores campus sexual assault and is available to Netflix subscribers or can be rented through iTunes or Amazon for $3.99.  I promise you that it’s worth every penny, and should be viewed by all high school and college students, and their parents.  I’ll leave the video trailer below for your perusal. In the meantime, remember:  It’s On Us to stop sexual assault.  I’ve pledged to do all I can to stop sexual assault in my community, and you can do the same.  Use the following link to make your own pledge:  It’s On Us Website.

For more information about campus sexual assault, visit the End Rape on Campus website using this link:  EROC.  For more about about The Hunting Ground documentary, visit the film’s website by using this link:  The Hunting Ground Website.  For more information about sexual assault, visit the website for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) by using this link.  And lastly, check out the website for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) by using this link.

And one more thing:  If you want to be a part of stopping sexual assault and making perpetrators responsible for their actions, please feel free to share this blog post with your Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media friends through the links provided below. In fact, I beg your help in spreading the word.

Published by C.H. Armstrong

C.H. (Cathie) Armstrong is 1992 graduate of the University of Oklahoma and is the author of THE EDGE OF NOWHERE (Penner, 2016), ROAM (Central Avenue, Feb. 5, 2019) and co-author of DÉJÀ YOU: STORIES OF SECOND CHANCES. She is represented by Tina P. Schwartz at The Purcell Agency, LLC.

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