What My Time Working With Sexual Assault Survivors Taught Me

sexual assault survivors

In hindsight, my first job out of college seems like a heavy emotional load for a 23-year-old to carry. But in that same backward-looking view, I can see how the spunk and bottomless optimism of being 23 gave me exactly the amount of fortitude I needed to study and educate others about sexual violence for 40 hours a week.

The main part of my job was outreach education, meaning I gave presentations and talks to all manner of folks, in all manner of places on topics related to sexual violence. I went to classrooms and talked to kids about the rights and autonomy in which their body is entitled, and gave them an action plan for safety should another person ever violate those rights. I regularly presented to teens in various programs of the Juvenile Justice System. I spoke at training programs for organizations that would have adults volunteering with kids, such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters. But one of the responsibilities (and honors) of my job that impacted me the most, was my weekly meetings with survivors at their follow-up appointment for their rape kit.

My job was to inform them of their options for free counseling and the availability of victim advocacy in court should they choose to prosecute. I’m not a counselor or therapist (and always made that clear), but every one of them told me at least a little bit of their story by choice. The one thing all these people had in common was that they were women. And the one piece of information they always, without fail, told me was they had been raped by a stranger (with the exception of two who couldn’t remember because they had been drugged, evidence confirmed by their kit).

Here’s what the statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) tell us:

  • In eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator

  • 51.1% of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance

It’s important to grasp these numbers so you can understand that acts of stranger-to-stranger sexual violence represent the smallest portion of this crime, yet in my experience, were the most highly — almost exclusively— reported. As far as reporting goes, the numbers are sobering. “Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police,” according to NSVRC.

The story of an ER nurse still haunts me to this day. She told me, “I can home from my shift at the hospital and must have been extra tired because I forgot to lock my front door — something I always do. I got in the shower and the next thing I knew, he was in my bathroom.” After he left, she instantly called the police and went back to the hospital where she worked to have a rape kit done. Many stories I heard fell into a similar cadence: unknown attacker, the nightmare stops long enough to call the cops, agree to have a kit performed. This follow-up appointment was for them to learn some results of the kit, including the probability of having contracted an STD or becoming pregnant.

What I observed in these interactions with survivors was that they felt reporting was the next logical step for this crime; just like you would call the police if you came home to find your living room ransacked. So the bigger question is: Why did this group of survivors seems to be the only ones reporting?

You can’t ignore the fact that these women were all sexually assaulted by strangers, removing the messy element of personal connection. They didn’t have friends in common or co-workers they shared beers with at happy hour or family members they both gathered with at holidays. When you start to pile on all the elements of familiarity, personal ties, and shared relationships between a survivor and their attacker, it only puts more psychological road blocks in the way of reporting. Wait, scratch reporting. Even telling someone this happened feels terrifying because of all the other people who will inevitably be involved.

Talking with these survivors I learned one of their biggest fears was of a repeat attack by the same attacker. They feared that if this stranger “found” and raped them once, they could likely do it again. Now, can you imagine the horror of knowing the person who did this to you? Knowing that they can absolutely know your whereabouts or easily find out. Would this make you feel more comfortable and empowered to report the crime?

Another common theme was self-blame. This just broke me. It seemed all these women could find a way to spin their attack to be a result of their negligence. “I should have locked my door. It’s my fault,” that ER nurse said to me. Meanwhile the others said, I shouldn’t have been walking to my car by myself or I shouldn’t have been out so late or I shouldn’t have drank so much. And when I would gently say, “It’s not your fault,” they would rarely meet my eyes.

Walking alone, forgetting to turn the door lock, staying out late, and throwing back shots are activities every woman has the right to do. They are neither invitations to nor excuses for acts of sexual violence against their bodies. In fact, there is no activity that is an invitation for this crime, ever! This goes for people who don’t know their attacker and those who do. So whenever a person — woman or man — has the courage to realize their attack was not their fault and then put voice to this by telling someone or officially reporting the crime, they should be believed! The default should be belief, not the accusation of false reporting (which is under 10% according to NSVRC). The knee-jerk reaction to point to something that happens so rarely is completely unacceptable.

Sadly, the problem goes deeper than numbers. If the proof that 90 percent or more of reported assaults are the true account of what happened, it doesn’t take a math wizard to determine that the overwhelming response should be, “We believe you.” But even the numbers aren’t strong enough to override the cultural conditioning and pervasive beliefs that a woman’s body and sexuality do not belong exclusively to her, that these facets of her femaleness are more carnal than sovereign. Until we are able to dismantle the old viewpoints and rebuild a collective consciousness that allows women to self-govern their bodies and sexual choices, we will continue to see pushback when acts of sexual violence are brought out of the shadows.

Here’s how you can do your part: believe survivors, support survivors, and continue to tell them it’s not their fault.