I am signing this letter to voice my strong support for victim-centered, trauma-informed approaches to sexual assault.
This letter was written to respond to recent efforts to discredit these evidence-based practices and viciously malign those who follow them. Today more than ever, we believe it is vital to speak out against those who use false or misleading information to attack national organizations, police departments, prosecutors’ offices, colleges, and universities, for supporting a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach to respond to disclosures of sexual assault.
I stand behind the message and philosophy of End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) and its Start by Believing campaign, which aims to reverse long-held misconceptions about sexual assault that can lead people to treat those who report sexual assault with a skeptical or biased mindset. Start by Believing aims to improve the responses of both professionals and the public when victims have the courage to come forward, disclose their abuse, and seek help.
Even when sexual assault victims report to law enforcement, very few cases make it through the criminal justice system and fewer yet result in conviction. At each step of the process, there is a chance that a sexual assault report will drop out. EVAWI has described the process of investigating and prosecuting sexual assault as a funnel of attrition within the criminal justice system:
“Of 100 forcible rapes that are committed, approximately 5-20 will be reported, 0.4 to 5.4 will be prosecuted, and 0.2 to 5.2 will result in a conviction. Only 0.2 to 2.9 will yield a felony conviction. Then an estimated 0.2 to 2.8 will result in incarceration of the perpetrator, with 0.1 to 1.9 in prison and 0.1 to 0.9 in jail.”
The most significant point of attrition is actually the first step in the process, where 80-95% of sexual assault victims decide that they are unable or unwilling to engage with the criminal justice process.1 Then as many as one-third to one-half withdraw their participation at some point during the investigative process.2
This means that offenders remain unaccountable, victims are left with unresolved trauma, and law enforcement is unaware of the full range of sexual violence being perpetrated in their communities. This, in turn, impacts the safety of the public they are sworn to protect and serve. The research tells us that many sexual predators re-offend, often multiple times.3 It’s a frightening equation: One failed response can mean many additional victims.
Research also documents that negative responses to a sexual assault disclosure can create an additional, measurable, and decidedly harmful effect on victims – over and above the trauma of the sexual assault itself.4 This harm compounds as the number of negative reactions increases. Indeed, receiving a negative reaction to a sexual assault disclosure can be worse than no reaction at all, in terms of the impact on sexual assault victims. In other words, victims are better off telling no one at all about their sexual assault, than telling someone and receiving a negative reaction of doubt or blame.5
Start by Believing is designed to reverse this cycle, by improving responses and helping victims overcome the many barriers to reporting and service utilization. We believe it is possible to both advocate for better ways to address sexual violence and respect Constitutionally-provided due process for those identified as suspects or defendants of sexual assault offenses.
If the goal is to gather the best information and evidence possible, an investigation should follow recommended practices based on an understanding of sexual assault and the impact of trauma on behavior and memory. The best interviews are conducted by creating a safe and nonjudgmental environment, establishing trust and rapport, and providing advocacy support and other services such as health care. Ultimately, survivors of sexual assault should be treated with dignity and respect, and as a partner in the factfinding process. A thorough sexual assault investigation combined with a victim-centered, trauma informed approach, is the only way to achieve due process.
1 - See, for example: Fisher, Cullen & Turner, 2000; Kilpatrick, Edmunds & Seymour, 1992; Kilpatrick, Resnick, Ruggiero, Conoscenti & McCauley, 2007; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000.
2 - See, for example: Frazier, Candell, Arikian & Tofteland (1994); Spohn, Rodriguez & Koss (2008); Tellis & Spohn (2008).
3 - For research on re-perpetration, please see Lisak and Miller (2002) and McWhorter et al. (2009).
4 - Negative social reactions have a detrimental impact on sexual assault victims, including increased psychological symptomology such as post-traumatic stress, delayed recovery, and poorer perceived health (Campbell, Ahrens et al., 2001; Filipas & Ullman, 2001; Ullman, 1999; Ullman & Filipas, 2001).
5 - What are these negative reactions? From informal support providers, this can include being blamed or patronized (Campbell, Ahrens et al., 2001). It can also include being doubted, stigmatized, or shamed. From formal support providers such as police, negative reactions can take the form of being discouraged from reporting or questioned about what they were wearing, their prior sexual history, or whether they “responded sexually” to the assault (for review, see Campbell, 2008). From health care providers, negative reactions can include treatment that is experienced by victims as “cold, impersonal, and detached” (Campbell, 2008). At the prosecution stage, negative reactions can include being provided inadequate information or preparation and being forced to “go through a punishing process of reliving the assault and defending their characters” (Koss & Achilles, 2008; cited in Campbell, 2008, p. 704).