Increasing disclosures without pressuring sexual violence survivors

Edited 12/17 to fix broken links. Sorry about that. Apparently the text editor in which I was drafting the post inserted a bunch of the weird curly quotation marks around my links and it broke the HTML somehow.

In my last post, I alluded to the problems with pressuring sexual violence survivors to report as a means of effecting social change, and how you don’t achieve a just society by stepping on the psyches and needs of the people harmed by the unjust one. For this one, I want to talk a bit about things we – both colleges/universities and general society – could do to make both disclosures to medical professionals and reports to authorities more likely to happen, that don’t involve pressuring survivors on those topics in any way.

To make reporting survivor-friendly, addressing problems with policing and the criminal justice system are really important. Even people who basically believe in the ideals of our police and criminal justice systems are not necessarily going to want to report when they are so broken. I also want to clarify that some of the people who are, say, prison abolitionists, are not necessarily going to want to report their assault to a retributive justice system, and that’s a valid position, but I doubt it’s the most common one when it comes to why people don’t report.

Furthermore, none of these suggestions will fix all the problems. We can make all the police or medical reforms we want, but if we still live in a culture where sexual assault survivors are stigmatized, where people lose friends for speaking up, where too often mutual friends respond by siding with the aggressor – you know, a rape culture – lots of people aren’t going to want to speak up, whether to police or to their friends. As long as we live in a culture where incarcerated people are dehumanized, corrections officers are rarely held responsible for misconduct toward incarcerated people, and prison rape jokes are considered funny, it’s going to be especially difficult for incarcerated people to speak out, report, or receive useful services. And as long as we live in a homophobic culture, a transphobic culture, a sexist culture, a culture where most people’s only image of sexual assault is as something that a straight cis man does to a straight cis woman, survivors who are not straight cis women, or who were assaulted by someone other than a straight cis man, face additional barriers to speaking out and getting any sort of validation. I hope that implementing these suggestions would at least address some issues.

Both colleges and everyone else:

Train cops, whether campus police or wider community police, around sexual violence and trauma in general. My local rape crisis center has a training for this, I think, though only paid staff get to run it so I haven’t gotten to see the curriculum. One of the serious problems, historically, with prosecuting sexual assaults, that’s only just starting to change thanks to trainings, is that many of the same behaviors that are common responses to traumatic stress, parts of both ASD and PTSD (e.g. missing memories, detached behavior) are the same things that cops are trained to see as red flags that a witness is lying.

Diversify the cops, too. At least as of last year, my campus only had one cop who wasn’t a white male. People of any gender can rape and sexually assault, but women in particular are more likely to have been raped or sexually assaulted by men, and someone who has been raped might not feel comfortable trying to report in a room of guys. A woman of color who was raped by a white guy might not feel comfortable reporting to a bunch of white guys. There is no guarantee that non-white-guy cops will actually be more informed on issues of sexual violence, but at least having a lot of different kinds of people as cops is a step. Make sure that police (and medical) services are accessible for foreign language speakers, Deaf folks, and people with disabilities.

Widely publicize all steps taken to improve things, so that survivors are more likely to be aware that those steps have been taken.

Colleges:

Train as many students, staff, and faculty as possible in the basic dynamics of sexual violence, basic responding-to-disclosures skills, and bystander intervention (using a good bystander intervention program that focuses on addressing rape culture, not a crappy one that centers the police or encourages people to play Batman). I’ve given those trainings, you can do the whole lot in four hours. Require that kind of training for certain positions – RAs and residential staff, student life staff, student crisis line volunteers, the people who staff campus women’s and LGBTQ centers, etc. At some campuses there are survivor groups trying hard to do some of this work, but it shouldn’t all fall on a bunch of busy student survivors who may be receiving a lot of flak on campus for their work.

Require the campus victim advocate(s), whoever they are, to be trained as rape crisis counselors, and probably domestic violence advocates as well, according to state standards, and to have some amount of off-campus experience using that training to do response work, either in a paid or volunteer position.

Train all judicial board members on sexual violence, with the training tailored to their role and provided by a non-campus-affiliated agency. I know that my local rape crisis center has such a training available.

Train all staff of campus news outlets that are likely to cover sexual assault cases (like student papers or official campus papers) on sexual violence and ethical journalism. I know that my local rape crisis center created a training on this in response to a particular university having a problem with its the way its campus papers covered sexual assault on that campus.

Provide both on-campus and off-campus resource options, and have cards and fliers for a couple of major off-campus resources basically all over campus. An outside rape crisis hotline can discuss a student’s options with them without being influenced by the cover-your-ass tendencies of college admins.

Have an amnesty policy on non-assaulting misconduct for anyone who reports an assault – for instance, a survivor or witness should be protected from disciplinary action for any drug use or underage drinking that was going on around the time of the assault.

Wider society:

Institute some basic training on consent and respecting boundaries, and maybe even a simplified, gentle version of bystander intervention, in K-12 education. By the time people get to college, or are college-age, it’s a little late – they’ve already absorbed an awful lot of messages around sex and sexual violence.

Create some kind of law or policy to deal with the rape kit backlogs that exist in some states. Why bother getting one done, which can be traumatic in its own right, if you know it’s just going to go into a black hole somewhere? For that matter, make sure that everyone who wants a rape kit done has access to the procedure – right now, that’s not always the case.

In areas where this is relevant, make it so that a rape crisis counselor or similar can accompany someone into the police interview without the rape crisis counselor later being called to testify in court. According to the detective who spoke to us during my rape crisis counselor training, my local big-city police department (I am not sure whether this is just their policy or state law), while it allows rape crisis counselors to accompany someone to the station, does not allow rape crisis counselors to accompany someone into the police interview because of the whole “They can be called to testify later” thing.

Expand the SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) program. A lot. They should be in every hospital, community health center, and campus medical center where it’s at all feasible. Based on what I’ve heard from survivors, experiences with SANEs are not uniformly positive, but experiences with post-rape care from non-SANE medical professionals are near-uniformly negative – and in some places, non-SANEs don’t perform certain kinds of post-rape care at all – and people shouldn’t be getting no or sub-par care because they went to their local hospital that didn’t happen to have a SANE program, or to their campus’ medical center. SANEs offer important services like emergency contraception that are otherwise sometimes lacking, and there is some evidence that the presence of a SANE program not only increases reporting rates, but quality of evidence collection and likelihood of conviction in the event of a trial. Right now there aren’t enough SANEs in many areas, in part because many hospitals don’t offer full-time SANE positions or provide benefits for SANE positions.

Relatedly, if there is no medical advocacy program at a local rape crisis center, fund one, and make it such that disclosing a rape at any hospital or community health center, not just a chosen few, automatically dispatches a medical advocate (a rape crisis counselor who, if desired, provides support and runs interference for a survivor through their post-rape hospital experience).
If no legal advocacy/court accompaniment program for survivors exists at the local rape crisis centers, fund one, so that people can discuss their legal options with someone who is also trained in crisis counseling and get trained emotional support in court. As with all of these things, widely publicize the availability of this program.
Provide easily-findable explanations of what exactly a rape kit is in that state, how it works, and what your rights are. Massachusetts has this.

Disallow certain types of “evidence” that are irrelevant, like how many past sexual partners a survivor has had, in court. Everyone is entitled to a robust defense, but our judicial system has standards for what evidence are valid, and those shouldn’t be dictated by stereotypes about who is an acceptable victim.

In the near future, I will zero in on the important role of policing in this issue, and the common ground between the anti-sexual-violence and anti-police-violence movements.

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