Rape and sexual assault are issues that have dominated the headlines recently. The response to those stories - whether they are about Brett Kavanaugh, Bill Cosby, or #MeToo - reveals a divide among Americans on what to do when someone says they’ve been assaulted.
As a society, we are still struggling to understand how rape and sexual assault affect victims and how to seek justice for these crimes.
It’s an issue that hits close to home for a significant number of Americans.
“Based on the statistics and the numbers that we do have, close to 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men are victims of some form of sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner,” says Megan Thomas, with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
She notes that this number is just an estimate, because many victims of sexual violence - an estimated 63% - don’t report.
In Illinois, 4,765 rapes were reported to police in 2016.
The lack of reporting is a significant issue - without a report, there can be no justice. A report is the first thing that kicks off a chain of events that starts with law enforcement, and in the best case scenario, ends with the perpetrator being identified and convicted.
Polly Poskin, director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says that reluctance to report has a lot to do with culture and an unwillingness to believe victims.
“Why would you tell somebody or why would would you open your mouth about something that happened to you that you have learned, just kinda by being alive, that nobody’s gonna believe me,” she says.
What does a “believable story” look like?
“In the moment of that sexual assault and of a trauma, we go into our survival instincts,” says Diana Dykyj, a therapist with the health provider Centerstone who specializes in trauma. “And so when our bodies and our brains are triggered to go into survival, we go into fight, flight, or freeze.”
Most people are familiar with the fight or flight concept, but freezing is a response people are less familiar with. Freeze, Dykyj says, happens when flight or fight aren’t an option.
“It’s almost like our brain’s last line of defense,” Dykyj explains. “Where we may not be able to protect our bodies but we can protect our brain.”
The person experiencing trauma may dissociate or check out in an effort to protect their mind from what is happening to their body.
But people hearing a story where the victim freezes may not understand it’s a survival response to the traumatic event, and not a lack of credibility. What may look like inaction or acceptance to an outsider is actually an instinct to protect the emotional self.
What’s important, Poskin notes, is making sure that first responders and police don’t base their approach to a case based on initial statements.
“Don’t be making preliminary decisions about whether this is a bona fide case or a believable case or a credible case until you look at that evidence,” she says.
The emotional impact of investigation
Another issue is the investigation itself. In addition to questioning by law enforcement, a victim may also elect to have a rape kit taken to gather evidence.
This exam can take 4 hours or more. It’s excruciatingly detailed, swabbing and combing and probing the victim's body, which has now become a crime scene. The invasiveness of this can add more trauma for the victim.
Nurses can undergo specialized training to perform these exams - but not all hospitals have those experts on staff. For small hospitals, it may be difficult to give personnel time to undergo the training, which includes 40 hours of lecture and an additional 300 clinical hours.
ICASA has been working to change that.
“Everybody by the year 2022 will have a qualified medical personnel in the emergency department to respond to sexual assault victims,” says Poskin. “For us that means sexualassault nurse examiners.”
A trained nurse can speed up the time spent performing the exam, making it less traumatizing to the patient.
There’s another reason this training is so essential - it’s about correctly collecting evidence in a way that will hold up in court.
“The reason to do evidence collection properly, the reason to swab for DNA, is to make sure you have the individual who perpetrated the crime and not somebody who didn’t,” Poskin says.
Illinois requires all rape kits are sent for testing - something that not all states do. But due to a lack of resources in state crime labs, testing can still take anywhere from 30 to 283 days.
Changing the System
Led by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the state has been working on laws designed to make reporting and prosecution more effective - and less traumatizing for victims who have already suffered an attack.
One of those is a law requiring police file a report any time a sexual assault is reported, regardless of jurisdiction or how long ago the assault took place. Police and other first responders are also required to undergo training on how to interact with sexual assault victims. The law took effect in 2017.
Training is available online and in person. Poskin notes that this means it should be possible for all law enforcement agencies to participate.
Illinois was the first state to pass a law requiring an audit of backlogged rape kits, and as of today all backlogged kits that were part of an ongoing investigation have been processed.
That number does not include kits without an open investigation. The number of kits without an investigation is not tracked by police, and Poskin says that ICASA does not have any information of how many of these kits exist.
Nationwide, processing of backlogged rape kits has led to convictions in old cases, as well as exonerations, mostly from DNA evidence.
But what it really comes down to, says Poskin, is priorities.
“If we decided we want smoking to stop, it is impressive the amount of people power, brain power, money power that gets poured into campaigns and work,” she says. “That’s just a matter of resources, that’s a matter of prioritizing.”