Vail Valley Voices: Sex assault widely misunderstood
Vail, CO, Colorado
As a victim advocate who works with sexual assault victims I would like you to know that most victims do not look like you expect them to.
Our society has lots of myths and stereotypes surrounding the topic of sexual assault. We expect victims to be bruised and bleeding, crying and hysterical. In reality, over 70 percent of rape victims report no physical injures.
It is important to note here that just because a victim may not look injured physically, she or he is still the victim of a violent crime. Submission is not the same as consent.
Consent seems like a simple word. But when it comes to sexual assault, it gets very confusing. If we heard of someone sexually assaulting a woman in a coma, we would call him sick and perverted because she cannot give consent; she cannot participate in any way.
The legal definition in Colorado includes the phrase “participation in act or attitude pursuant to an exercise of free will.” Yet when someone sexually assaults a victim who is drunk, we often blame the victim: She shouldn’t have been drinking so much.
Another situation in which consent gets confusing is “consensual” sex between an adult and a child. What is the image in your head when you read that? A dirty old man with a 5-year-old? That one is pretty easy to judge as sexual assault.
But what about the 14-year-old with the 25-year-old boyfriend? That is sometimes called “statutory rape” and isn’t always taken seriously, but the long-term effects can be devastating.
Our society has this image of a rapist as some creepy guy who jumps out of the bushes and beats his victim into submission. That kind of stranger rape is very rare. The vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. In child cases (anyone under 18) over 90 percent are assaulted by someone they know!
Most sexual offenders look “normal.” They are our friends, teachers, babysitters, and classmates. They often spend time and effort “grooming” their victims.
Grooming is the term we use to describe the offender’s methods of gaining the victim’s trust or affection, and often the trust of the victim’s parents or friends.
But when you research sexual offenders, the facts are very revealing. As one professional put it, “Sex offenders are often among the most polite, compliant, apparently pro-social offenders on the probation or parole caseload. … Sex offenders are able to present themselves so differently from other criminal offenders that those charged with their supervision in the past were unaware of how dangerous they really were.” (Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: A National Resource Directory and Handbook).
Victims of sexual assault have been socialized with myths, too. They often feel they are to blame for the assault, especially when it is committed by someone they thought they could trust. That is one reason that victims of sexual assault are unlikely to report it, especially right after the assault.
Delayed reporting is extremely common in sex assault cases. But in reality, most sexual assault victims don’t ever report. Estimates vary but several studies indicate only about 16 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported. When they are reported to law enforcement, it is often after days, weeks, even years.
Many children explain delayed disclosure by saying they fear being disbelieved, punished or unprotected. Older victims have similar fears, though they may use slightly different language: They feel ashamed, embarrassed, and afraid they will be blamed for the assault, and often times they are.
The mother of a teenage victim told me recently that when she told an acquaintance about her daughter’s rape, the acquaintance responded with “well I heard she was dressed like a whore at (a previous school event).”
Usually victim-blaming isn’t that overt, but for some reason our society always seems to focus on the victim’s behavior more than the perpetrator’s.
As a victim advocate, I’ve seen thousands of sexual assault victims in my career. The emotional damage caused by a disbelieving loved one leaves lasting wounds at a time when the victim needs support the most.
Remember, most victims of sexual assault look nothing like the stereotype. If someone trusts you enough to disclose their pain, don’t judge or question their behavior. Instead, help them find trained professionals who can assist them in their recovery.
Deena Ezzell is the victim services coordinator with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. For assistance or more information, call the Bright Future Foundation’s hotline at 970-949-7086, the Victims Services Unit at the Sheriff’s Office at 970-328-8544 or go to http://www.rainn.org.