Fear, terror, anger, grief, trauma, never feeling safe again, violation, death of part of your soul, PTSD, flashbacks, rage, depression, anxiety, nightmares, and pain. These are the words my college roommate has used over the years as she moved forward from the darkness after a stranger broke into her home while she was sleeping, tied her hands with the shoestrings of her running shoes, put a pillow over her face, held a knife at her throat, and raped her. She fought for her life and he cut her hands with the knife, severely. After the assault was over, the rapist told her if she was a good girl, he would come back to visit her, and then he left. She called 911 and a local friend and was taken to the hospital. There were no victim assistance personnel to help and the only people who showed up to talk to my friend were two detectives from the local police department.
Eventually, her assailant was caught and it took over two years to bring him to trial. He was convicted of rape and also assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to life plus 25 years in prison. It was not the rape that garnered the lengthy sentence, it was the use of deadly weapon. His defense attorney later argued his sentence and his sentence was reduced to life in prison, which meant he would be eligible for parole after 25 years. He became eligible for release in 2016 and she was notified of his petition for parole. The PTSD from which she has suffered daily since the attack was amplified and it felt as though she was being victimized again. Unfortunately, her story and her experience with the medical and criminal justice system as a victim, is not unique.
“It is often said that victims of sexual assault are victimized twice, once by the perpetrator and again by the criminal justice system during the investigation of the crime and, if a suspect is arrested, during the prosecution phase.” (Bartol & Bartol, 2017) This statement was proven to be true time and time again in the case of my friend both during the prosecution of the assailant and after she was notified of his petition for parole.
Although many improvements have been made in how a victim of rape is treated (since the time of the attack on my friend) by the public, medical, and criminal justice systems, but there is still much to be done. Changes need to be made on all fronts, and the most basic change is how the public perceives rape, how it should be investigated/prosecuted, and how those found guilty should be sentenced. The ideas that only women can be raped, that someone’s attire makes someone a target, that someone’s drinking also makes them a target are myths that need to be dispelled. “Rape myths and misogynistic attitudes appear to play a major role in the sexual assault of women.” (Bartol & Bartol, 2017) Rape is about power and rage, and no one is asking to be raped, regardless of their attire, sobriety, perceived social cues, or whether or not they are male of female. The change in the FBI’s definition of rape is more inclusive and all encompassing than that of previous definitions and is a step in the right direction. According to the FBI, rape is now defined as the “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (FBI, 2014)
The next improvement which must be addressed is that of the availability of victim services for a victim from the time of the first report until the trial (if there is a trial) is adjudicated. When my friend was raped, there were no victim services available to come to the hospital, nor to the eventual trial. The only two people with whom she had contact were the two male detectives. Victim services personnel play a vital role in the process of assisting a rape victim which starts as soon as the victim reports the rape whether they are at hospital or walk into a police station. Every law enforcement agency and prosecutors office, no matter the size, needs to establish a victim services department.
The medical system is the next area in need of improvement when working with victims of rape and trauma. Trauma response varies from person to person and situation to situation, so all medical personnel who are working in the emergency room should be required to take advanced training in trauma victims and how to treat them. Hospitals and medical facilities should actually form a dedicated team to address sexual assault victims, as opposed to having whomever happens to be present in the ER when a victim arrives, address the victim’s examination and needs.
Trauma training with regard to working with victims of sexual assaults is also needed for law enforcement officers and prosecutors of the cases. “Law enforcement agencies have been making strides toward improving the experiences of sexual assault survivors when they’re reporting their crime.” (Rousseau, 2019) However, victims may make inconsistent statements when reporting their crimes which may incorrectly lead the investigators to assume the victim is no telling the truth. My friend had to recount the event multiple times during the investigation. Having mandatory victim trauma training for responding police officers and advanced training for trauma for detectives and prosecutors handling these cases needs to be expanded. In addition, more resources need to be focused on genuinely clearing rape cases. The statistics for actual clearance rates are appalling. In 2017, just 32% of rape cases were closed nationwide (USA Today, 2018), and even with the #MeToo movement happening, the clearance rates are abysmally low. Numerous police departments also have declared cases as “unfounded,” (WESA NPR, 2019) and thus they are considered closed and removed from the statistics which means the clearance case for cases is likely lower than 32%. Victims of sexual assault deserve better than that.
With regard to sentencing those who are found guilty of rape, there is much change needed. When a person is raped, some part of them is forever taken or essentially killed, and the sentences should reflect this. I have made the analogy with my friend, that she went from a free spirited person who was full of joy, to a person who is fearful and suffers from horrible PTSD. Her assailant took part of her life that night, which she will never get back. He essentially killed that part, and sentences should reflect this. Again, her case is unfortunately not unique in the trauma that continues to occur. There have been several notable cases recently such as that of Brock Turner, in which, he raped a woman who was unconscious and yet he received a prison term of six months, but served only three months. What does such a sentence say to the victims and to those who would commit such heinous crimes?
According to the FBI (2014) in 2013, “79,770 rapes were reported which translates into approximately 25.2 per 100, 000 female inhabitants” and “research data also indicate that 18 percent of women in the United States have been raped at some point in their lifetimes,” (Bartol and Bartol) which is roughly one in five women. With this crime being so frequent, we need to examine the treatment of victims from the initial reporting of the incident until the trial (if there is one). My friend is a survivor, she survived the rape and the trauma from the medical and criminal justice systems as well. She shares her experience to help others, but changes need to be made to the systems that deal with victims. As a community, in all facets, we can improve so many aspects to assist the victims of sexual assault. We can and need to do better.
Bartol, C and Bartol A (2017), Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach, 11 Edition, Pearson Press, Chapter 12
Rouseau, Danielle (2019) MET CJ 725: Forensic Behavior Analysis, Classroom notes: Module 5
Mustian, Jim and Sisak, Michael, (2018) “Despite #MeToo, Clearance Rate for Rape Cases at Lowest Point since 1960. USA Today Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/12/27/rape-cases-clearance-rate-hits-low-despite-metoo/2421259002/
Perkins, Lucy, (2019) “Pittsburgh Police Dismiss Nearly One-Third of Rape Cases as Unfounded.” WESA NPR News Station. Available at: https://www.wesa.fm/post/pittsburgh-police-dismiss-nearly-one-third-rape-cases-unfounded#stream/0
Neary, Lynn (2019) “Victim of Brock Turner Assault Reveals Her Identity,” www. NPR.com, Available at: https://www.npr.org/2019/09/04/757626939/victim-of-brock-turner-sexual-assault-reveals-her-identity
My college roommate gave permission to use her story in this blog entry.