The challenge of overcoming sexual violence in small communities

By Lydia Christie, Special to the BDN
Posted April 11, 2013, at 11:33 a.m.

Small communities are often considered safer communities. Our cultural perception is that cities are where crime happens. However, we know that sexual violence happens in all communities in Maine, large and small.

Smaller communities can mean more tight-knit relationships and support when we need it most. However, small communities also mean unique challenges for victims of sexual violence and those who help them.

Victims of rape and sexual assault, wherever they live, often do not report the crimes committed against them for a variety of reasons. In a rural community, the reasons why victims don’t come forward are similar but amplified.

Statistically, most victims know the person who raped or sexually assaulted them. However, in a rural community where a victim knows many fellow community members, there is an increased likelihood that she or he knows the offender personally. The offender may be a friend of the family or acquainted with other friends in the victim’s social circle.

The smaller population in rural communities may mean decreased privacy or anonymity for individuals who have been victims of sexual violence, beyond their choice or control. Health-care professionals and law enforcement may be a part of the survivor’s social network or that of the offender, causing concern for the victim’s privacy and safety. That old saying, “When you live in a small town everyone knows your business,” is often not far from the truth.

Sexual violence is a deeply personal crime. The inability to remain anonymous may be a heightened fear for victims of sexual violence because they are often embarrassed and fear how others will perceive them. If a victim’s family is well-known in the community, the family may be concerned about how a sexual violence case would affect their status. Victims may also fear retaliation from the offender or those who know the offender, a common concern in smaller communities.

Anyone who has driven through rural Maine knows that our smaller communities are often isolated, and there are long distances between gas stations and grocery stores. The same is true for a victim’s access to health care, law enforcement and social service agencies. This can be a contributing factor to a victim deciding to not report sexual assault or rape or seek services. Many people in rural areas don’t have reliable transportation, and, of course, public transportation is a benefit in larger communities.

There also challenges for those who are trying to serve victims of sexual violence. For example, law enforcement departments in small rural communities are much smaller than what you would find in larger cities. Some departments may only have two to three full-time officers and perhaps only one working at any given time. Officers are often responsible for completing multiple tasks, instead of focused on specific responsibilities as in larger city departments. Having smaller departments and smaller budgets may make it more challenging to attend trainings specific to skill building or networking with other providers involved in addressing sexual violence. This creates a range of difficulties when officers are tasked with investigating cases involving sexual violence.

Small communities are part of the fabric that knits Maine together. Our state is known for being home to people who help each other in a snowstorm, help each other when the power goes out and help each other when there are tragedies in our midst. If we take these strengths and apply them to helping victims of violence, we are one step closer to ending sexual violence and the problems associated with it.

Supporting victims and survivors of sexual violence, as well as working as a community to find ways to prevent this horrible crime, is up to all of us. Mainers know how to approach difficult problems as a community, and, working together, we can find a way.

Lydia Christie is the program coordinator of the sexual assault services division of Aroostook County Mental Health Center. She may be reached at lchristie@amhc.org.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/04/11/opinion/the-challenge-of-overcoming-sexual-violence-in-small-communities/ printed on July 22, 2014