The annual numbers of crime in Maine were released on Tuesday, reflecting an increase in rapes and attempted rapes from 2010 to 2011.
This does not mean, however, that Maine saw an increase in rape or attempted rape in 2011. What it means is that there was a slight increase in reporting of one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. When 13,000 Mainers per year experience rape or sexual assault, and only 414 report to law enforcement, it’s clear that hard work remains to be done.
There is a lot everyone can do to increase reporting.
We can begin by believing victims of sexual assault instead of holding them guilty until proven innocent in the court of public opinion. Only two to eight percent of reports are false: This is no more than any other crime. Research has shown that misconceptions about the extent of false reporting have direct, negative consequences on survivors and may contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assault. By changing the way we talk about sexual violence victimization, we can increase support for victims and also increase reporting rates.
We can hold media outlets accountable for the way they present rape cases, and we can also commend them for reporting responsibly. The Sandusky case is a prime example of responsible reporting from most media. Although the victims asked to remain anonymous, the court ruled that once the trial began, their identities would be revealed. Most news sources, however, pledged to not publish the victims’ names. Such responsible reporting ought to be commended, because it reflects respect for victims and their privacy.
We can support programs already in place designed to help victims report cases of sexual assault and rape. One such program exists in each county in Maine: Sexual Assault Response Teams.
Since 1995, Maine’s Sexual Assault Response Teams have fostered relationships among law enforcement, prosecutors and health care professionals to develop policies and make systemwide changes that simplify the sexual assault reporting process. SARTs have built crucial links between systems which had previously been wrought with conflict. These links have eased the burden on victims and their families in terms of reporting such deeply personal crimes.
Since the inception of SARTs, reports of sexual violence in Maine have increased exponentially. However, with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act stalled in Congress, this program’s funding is in danger across Maine and the United States. The loss of such a program would negatively impact victims and community safety everywhere.
Maine’s sexual assault crisis and support centers are hard at work each day to increase incident reporting and to work toward a safer state. But, just as sexual violence impacts entire communities, it takes all of us to support victims and to end sexual violence. By believing victims who come forward, by holding media outlets accountable and commending them for responsible reporting, and by supporting programs already in place, we can increase the number of reported incidents and perhaps even lower the frequency of unreported incidents.
We owe it to ourselves and our communities to care about the issue of rape and sexual assault because it affects everyone. Let’s focus on what can be done to improve our safety and the safety of future Maine generations.
Melissa Gray is the director of Downeast Health Services’ Family Planning and Sexual Assault programs. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-492-5550, ext. 254.