Sexual assault is never the fault of the victim. The only person that bears blame is the perpetrator who made the decision to harm someone else. Often when someone hears the term sexual assault they think of a rapist violently attacking a lone woman in an alley or parking lot. While this can happen, the majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.
Defining Sexual Assault and Rape
Sexual Assault or Rape: sexual contact with anyone who cannot or does not give informed, willing consent.
This is not the legal definition of rape in Oregon. The legal definitions distinguish between degrees of rape and between rape and other forms of sexual assault. However, this definition of rape helps to focus attention on the pivotal issue of consent.
Whether survivors are attacked by a stranger or a family member, whether they are violently assaulted or coerced by threats or pleas, whether their experience can be legally be defined as sexual assault, they suffer the pain of being sexually assaulted. Survivors deserve to be believed, to have their feelings validated, and to know that they are not to blame.
A pervasive and devastating myth about rape is that the victim is in some way responsible for the crime. We often hear people (including, unfortunately, some defense attorneys and judges) say, “What was she doing out alone?” or “She shouldn’t have been drinking” or “She shouldn’t have been wearing those clothes.”
The reality is, a rapist is responsible for the rape. Henderson House refuses to accept that sexual violence is ever the appropriate consequence for going out alone, drinking, or wearing certain clothing, any more than banks should be blamed for bank robberies because they intentionally keep a lot of money in their vaults.
Those who blame the victim also fail to take into account that most victims of sexual assault or rape are assaulted by someone they know and believe to be trustworthy; that many sexual assaults occur in victims’ homes where they believed themselves safe; that victims often are children or the elderly; and that the crime is planned in detail and the victim is powerless to change the plan.
Healing from Sexual Assault
For the sexual assault survivor, the attack is just the beginning of the trauma. Afterward, they may experience at least some of the following feelings and reactions:
- Fear of the sexual offender’s return
- Frustration with the legal process
- Destruction of their trust in people, even those in no way connected to the assault
- Misplaced anger directed toward them or toward their partner.
- Criticism and/or some level of shunning from their family and friends as well as from society in general
- Physical scars and/or disabilities
- HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases
- Feelings of extreme isolation
- Sleep disorders
- Loss of self-esteem
- Guilt that they in some way caused the assault
- Loss of a sense of control
- Loss of a sense of security in her surroundings
Just as most survivors do not report their sexual assault to authorities – fewer than 10 percent do, it is estimated – many will not tell anyone at all.
Choosing to deal with the assault on their own, many sexual assault survivors feel that keeping the assault quiet is their only way to regain control of their lives. Fear of being blamed for the assault and a sense of isolation contribute to the decision not to tell anyone, at least not right away.
Whether or not the survivor confides in someone, they may be in a kind of shock for days. The survivor may have a feeling of surrealism, an inability to process what is happening. A sexual assault survivor may appear calm but feel out of control. All of these reactions may mean the survivor is in shock. Shock anesthetizes the mind and body to help the victim survive the assault.
Relatively few sexual assault survivors choose to get professional counseling. Yet, for many, it may be helpful to talk with a safe, caring, and supportive person.
If someone has just been sexually assaulted, our first concern is that the survivor is safe, that they have a safe place to stay and safe people to be with. If they call our crisis hotline, they may be invited to go to the Henderson House confidential shelter. Most often survivors of sexual assault prefer to stay with close, supportive friends and receive follow-up supportive services from a sexual assault program.
A survivor who wants to report that they have been sexually assaulted to the police is encouraged to go to the hospital immediately for an exam by trained medical staff. At the hospital, the survivor may also have the assistance of a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate from the district attorney’s office and/or a Henderson House Advocate.
Benefits of counseling for a sexual assault survivor:
- Release an overwhelming flood of emotions generated by the attack, including fear, grief, and anger
- Overcome feelings of isolation
- Accept their own feelings
- Come to terms with the reality of the attack and the validity of their responses
- Regain their sense of control over their own life
- Understand and evaluate their options
- Make informed, rational choices for themselves
If Someone You Know is Sexually Assaulted
If someone you care about is sexually assaulted, here are some things to keep in mind as you help them.
Be supportive. Really listen. Make it clear that you care about their feelings.
Do not ask for details. Give them the opportunity to talk about their feelings, fears, and reactions as they choose.
Do not tell them what to do. It is their decision whether to report the rape or not. You can help them clarify their options or refer them to a crisis hotline for that kind of help. In the Yamhill County area, the crisis hotline is (503) 472-1503. If they have just been sexually assaulted and they decide to report it, remind them not to destroy evidence by bathing, douching, changing clothes, or applying medication.
Encourage them to get competent, sensitive medical attention.
Encourage them to talk with someone trained to help sexual assault victims. However, a survivor of sexually assault must be able to decide for themselves when and if they wants to receive support and counseling.
Seek support for yourself. Your feelings matter, too. By talking through your feelings with someone on the crisis hotline or a counselor, you will be better able to provide the on-going support they will need. Remember not to use the survivor to help you work out your own feelings.
Be gentle, patient, and sensitive to their needs. Don’t presume you know their needs. Ask before you reach out.
Don’t expect them to heal quickly. Neither should you discontinue your support when you think they should be back to normal.
Sexual Assault and the Justice System
Whether or not to report a sexual assault to law enforcement agencies must be the survivor’s choice, no one else’s. The survivor is the one who will have to decide whether they can handle the stress that the decision to report inevitably brings.
Non-emancipated minors do not have the same legal protection around reporting as adults. If you are unsure about what your rights are, call the hotline to speak with an advocate, 24 hours a day, 7 days per week: (503) 472-1503.
A survivor who wants to report a sexual assault that just happened should telephone the police and be prepared to go immediately to a nearby hospital for a rape kit exam. That is a special exam administered by trained medical personnel in order to gather physical evidence about the assault. To preserve the evidence, the survivor should not clean themselves up in any way before the exam is completed.
When the victim first reports the crime, the police in many Oregon communities in turn will notify the local Victim Assistance Program, and a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate may respond. Usually the advocate will meet the survivor at the hospital to stand by them during the initial police interview and, if the survivor wants, during the medical exam. The Sexual Assault Victim Advocate’s main purpose is to listen to the survivor, validate their feelings and reactions, and prepare them for what comes next in the legal process. Advocates may also handle urgent practical tasks, such as assisting with phone calls for the victim and giving them clothes to wear home from the hospital if the ones they were wearing are needed for evidence.
Later, the advocate may go with the survivor to further interviews with the police and others in the justice system. The advocate may accompany the to the grand jury proceedings and, if there is an indictment, may help prepare the survivor for court, including such basic steps as showing them the courtroom, explaining the trial process, and assuring them it’s all right to ask questions.
Support continues even after the trial, with matters of compensation and restitution. Victim Assistance Program staff will help the survivor with the paperwork needed to get aid from the Oregon Department of Justice Crime Victims’ Compensation Program. Funds are there to help meet expenses like medical and counseling bills and to help make up for loss of income as a result of the crime.
For more information about the Victims’ Compensation Program, see Crime Victim’s Compensation.
Although there has been considerable improvement in recent years in the way the justice system treats a sexual assault victim, the process will still be difficult at best. When they report the assault, their actions may come under public scrutiny. Their actions may be criticized. They may not be believed. In addition, it is entirely possible that they may go through the months of investigation and court processes only to see the offender walk away. Even if the offender is convicted, the survivor knows the odds are good that they will be back on the streets soon.
Filing a criminal complaint against a sexual offender is not the only legal way to make them bear the consequences of their actions. In some cases, it may be productive for the survivor to look for a civil remedy-in other words, to sue for an amount to be paid as damages.
A civil suit may be against the sexual offender, but suits also have been made against others considered in some way responsible for the crime, such as a motel whose inadequate locks allowed the offender to enter the victim’s room, or the company that failed to check out the offender’s background before hiring them to work in homes where they were alone with the victim.
As always for anyone considering court action, the sexual assault survivor must decide whether it is worth it to sue, given the financial and emotional costs involved.
The financial reality is that unless the party being sued has a lot of money or other assets, it is unlikely the survivor can collect enough in damages to cover court costs, which can run to tens of thousands of dollars, much less to compensate for the anguish the offender caused. In addition, they may have a difficult time finding a lawyer to take the case at all unless there is the potential for a large award and a good chance of winning.