Rape and sexual assault happen in our own communities, as evidenced by the recent events reported in the news. Now more than ever it’s imperative that we educate ourselves about what sexual violence is so that we can work together to end it.
According to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, roughly 14,000 Maine residents may be the victim of rape or unwanted sexual activity during any 12 month period, a startlingly high number. You might wonder if each of these 14,000 assaults is just as violent as the ones reported recently in the Bangor Daily News, or as the ones portrayed on television in shows such as “Law and Order”, “NCIS” and “CSI.”
Rape is a violent crime. A rape or sexual assault occurs when there is a lack of consent or permission for the sexual act to occur. Violence is used to coerce the victim of the assault and may take the form of overt physical brutality. Violence takes other forms as well. A sexual assault victim may have been coerced through other means; he or she may have been threatened, manipulated or drugged by the perpetrator. He or she may have been incapacitated and unable to give consent. He or she may have been too young to legally give consent.
A coerced “yes” is not the same as a voluntary “yes.” It is a sexual assault if the victim did not, or could not, scream or fight back. A victim of sexual assault may not have any visible marks, bruises or injuries. This means we the public can’t expect to be able to nod our heads and say “Yes, this was definitely a sexual assault, we can see the evidence” or “No, there are no injuries so no assault occurred here.”
Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, with a 36 percent reporting rate. There are a myriad of reasons why a victim might not report this crime. Since roughly 85 percent of victims know their attacker, the victim may feel conflicted about reporting.
Is this person, who they may have once cared for or loved, going to go to jail if they call the police? The victim might not want to face an extensive forensic physical exam, the Maine State Sex Crimes Kit, and police interview. The victim might convince themselves it was not a sexual assault because it did not happen the way it does on TV. Worst of all, the victim might feel ashamed and guilty, as if what happened was their fault. They may fear they will not be believed, or that the attacker will claim the victim consented and now is “crying rape.” Only 2 percent of reported sexual assaults turn out to be false.
Despite numerous reports of sexual assault in the news, it’s important to look on the bright side: More people are coming forward about their experience with sexual assault. It might inspire those who have also experienced sexual violence to come forward, if not publicly then perhaps privately with their friends, a therapist or a confidential rape crisis hot line, such as ours.
But how can we prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place? Primary prevention works by addressing root causes of a problem. As part of our primary prevention efforts, Rape Response Services employs two full-time community outreach educators who travel to schools, businesses and community groups to give presentations and workshops to people of all ages starting as young as three years old. The presentations and workshops, all developed based on the Maine Learning Results, range in topics including Internet safety, personal body safety, friendship skills, bullying, gender stereotypes or labeling, sexual harassment, media literacy, consent and basic sexual assault information.
Rape Response Services strives to create an atmosphere of nonviolence by pursuing a mission of social change. This means that we consider our fellow community members, both men and women, as potential allies in the fight against sexual violence. It’s up to all of us, not just those of us with the title “advocate” or “Rape Response Services employee,” to work against the current social norms that allow sexual violence to happen and remain behind closed doors.
For information about services offered by Rape Response Services, about how you can help stop violence in your community, or to become a volunteer please call 973-3662 go to MECASA.org, RAINN.org, or RRSONLINE.org or look for us on Facebook, Rape Response Services fan page, and Twitter@RapeResponse.
If you have been affected by sexual violence and wish to access support services please call 800-310-0000.
Bettina Voigt is a community outreach educator for Rape Response Services in Penobscot County. Brianna Bryant is a community outreach educator in Piscataquis County.