Healing Is Possible: Community Response to Sexual Assault

Healing Is Possible: Community Response to Sexual Assault

This post, written by KCSARC's Prevention Services Specialist Rachel Taylor, was originally published on July 8 on KCTS9.

King County Sexual Assault Resource Center’s Executive Director Mary Ellen Stone often says: “We can’t stop what we can’t talk about.” This quote rings true for us in every aspect of our work here at KCSARC and illuminates the fact that our society has a difficult time talking about sexual assault. It is a hard conversation to have, but when the dialogue begins, we are met with a breadth of experience, knowledge and questions. Survivors raise their voices to share difficult stories. Communities, families and friends weigh in. Many ask: “Why does this continue to happen?” The PBS POV film Pervert Park broaches this difficult topic and serves as a launching point for further discussion.

We know that sexual violence is perpetuated as the result of many factors; it is a crime that is rooted in power and control, shrouded by silence and shame, and sustained by societal reactions that work to minimize violence and quiet the voices of survivors. We also know that healing is possible. We all play an integral role in the healing process; every individual can take a stand to create safer and healthier communities. 

Healing happens when survivors are believed. One of the biggest factors that will impact a survivor’s road to recovery is the response they receive the first time they disclose their assault; victims who are believed the first time they tell are more likely to continue seeking help. When we create environments where survivors are supported, victims feel safer to come forward. Sexual assault is a crime that is perpetrated against people of all backgrounds; when societal expectations of what a survivor looks like are set, harm is done by creating the illusion that support is not available to all. It is important to note that support is available to people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, income levels and abilities.

Oftentimes when we speak about sexual assault, victims’ experiences are questioned and audiences express concerns about false reporting. The research tells us that false reporting rates for sexual assault are the same, if not lower, than false reporting rates for any other crime in our country. The vast majority of victims who report sexual assault are telling the truth and it is imperative that they are believed. 

Healing happens when offenders are held accountable. The perpetration of sexual assault is not a crime that can be simply attributed to alcohol, a flirtatious victim, a misunderstanding, a trap or an innocent person getting caught up in the moment. When these explanations are used, responsibility for the crime is shifted off of the perpetrator and blame is placed on outside circumstances or the victims themselves. Through the work of David Filkelhor, a researcher in the field of child sexual abuse, we are able to see that perpetrators must overcome a set of internal and external inhibitors before committing their crime; this is not a process that occurs in a single moment. True recovery can only occur in individuals who take full responsibility for their crimes, who are motivated to change, and who are committed to living as healthy, safe and productive members of the community. 

There is an important distinction to be made when we speak about the previous victimization of sex offenders. Although the experience of child abuse can be a risk factor for sexual assault perpetration, the majority of child sexual abuse survivors do not go on to offend. When children are believed, given opportunities to heal, and supported in having strong and healthy relationships, they are very capable of having bright futures.  

Healing happens when communities work together. We know that the best possible response to a sexual assault is a community effort. Those closest to a survivor are often the first to hear the disclosure; friends and family are in a unique position to believe their loved one, to assure them it is not their fault, and to support them through the healing process. Community sexual assault programs are available to answer a survivor’s phone call 24 hours a day, to provide advocates to help navigate the criminal justice process and to provide therapy services. Doctors, nurses and hospital staff can be sensitive to the needs of trauma survivors in their medical care; police departments, prosecuting attorneys, judges and policy makers have the opportunity to create a society where sexual violence is not tolerated. Sex offender treatment providers can engage in meaningful treatment by holding perpetrators accountable. When all of these systems work together, we create responsible and supportive community responses to sexual assault. 

Support is available. Every county in Washington State has its own community sexual assault program (CSAP); each CSAP is equipped to serve victims of any age, race, gender or sexual orientation.  Through these programs, survivors of sexual assault may access a 24-hour resource line, legal advocacy, therapy and parent/family support. CSAPs are also available to provide community education and are an excellent resource for people who have questions or would like to continue the conversation after viewing Pervert Park

To find the program closest to you, visit http://www.wcsap.org/find-help or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673). To reach the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center please visit www.kcsarc.org or call our resource line at 1.888.99.VOICE (86423).


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