The effects of surviving a crime can be long-lasting, especially in sexual assaults, which are often treated differently from most other crimes in society and the legal system.
“We tend to blame the victim more in cases of sexual assault than in other crimes, and women who come to us usually are experiencing self-blame,” says Joyce Cody, director of My Sister’s Place, the rape crisis center in Madison County. “We live in a society that tends to blame the victims of sexual assault. What was she wearing? Did she allow the man to buy her a drink? Where was she walking? Did she get into a car with him?”
For Savannah, who has asked that her full name not be used, the consequences will be lifelong. At age 13, she was assaulted by two older teenagers. The two later confessed, but many friends and family refused to believe her account, says Savannah.
Married now, 22 years old, and mother to an infant son, Savannah is going to school to become a counselor because she believes she would not have survived without counseling. Her assailants, then 19 and 17, were sentenced to four to six years. Both have served their time and are out of jail.
But one of them returned to his hometown and is living nearby, which causes Savannah a great deal of anxiety. And she has lost several friends and family members, who still don’t believe her.
“People have to make a choice about which person to believe,” Cody says. “And the accused person is often somebody people want to trust.”
Women who have survived sexual assault often face a life of posttraumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, anxiety and depression. They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol in efforts to self-medicate, and they reject intimacy or react by seeking out more sex — riskier sex — which leaves them more vulnerable to sexually transmitted illnesses.
When it comes to procedures for investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, laws and practices vary from state to state, but what it boils down to is that only 3 percent of rape cases result in a conviction, Cody says. What’s worse, she adds, is when cases result in conviction but the perpetrator receives a light sentence because a judge feels sorry for him. That happened in California earlier this year when Brock Turner, a Stanford University student and athlete, was sentenced to just six months in jail for raping a young woman. He served only three months.
In North Carolina, the Department of Public Safety reports 1,736 rapes in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. That’s a rate of 18.1 rapes per 100,000 people. And more than 40 of those cases were reported in Asheville. Total arrests statewide for rape were 429, according to N.C. Public Safety. In 2010, by comparison, 1,954 rape cases were reported, with a rate of 21.5 per 100,000 people, and 658 arrests were made.
The Department of Public Safety’s report does not document convictions, but rape cases can take two years or more to resolve, which, Cody says, can be another source of trauma for victims.
“When a victim can’t put the crime behind her and get on with her life for two years or longer, that has an effect,” Cody says.
Sexual assault is a crime that, by its very nature, rarely has witnesses, so without physical evidence, there is little chance for a conviction, says Mike Boone, chief of police in Marshall. That’s why a woman who has been assaulted should go immediately to a hospital for examination. Boone spent nine years as a sexual crimes investigator in Madison County before joining the Marshall police force.
“It’s difficult, even traumatizing, to go through the exam,” he says. “It’s invasive. But the nurses who perform the exam are trained, and there is other help there for victims, and it’s important that evidence is gathered.”
But what happens to that evidence can be traumatizing as well. Rape kits too often go untested. Recently one rape kit was discovered in a refrigerator in Hot Springs, and it apparently had been there for several years. In some states, the kits can be destroyed before the statute of limitations on the crime has elapsed, leaving a woman with no evidence against her attacker.
In North Carolina, the rape kit must be kept in a secured evidence locker or evidence room, Boone says. Evidence can’t be destroyed without a court order, and only then if the trial is ended.
But small, rural police departments often don’t have the funding to test every rape kit, says Boone, and they often are underfunded. Large, urban departments face similar issues, he says. But small departments also have fewer officers specifically trained to work on sexual assault cases and often have to work with outdated equipment.
“Cases are mishandled, and cases fall through the cracks,” says Boone.
A new federal law granting rights to victims in federal sexual assault cases (where the crime occurred on federal property) sets out procedures for gathering and keeping evidence, the timing for when the evidence can be destroyed and granting victims the right to have a copy of the police report.
And while increased victim rights no doubt will be helpful, the trauma of the crime as well as the blame remain, says Crystal Webb, a victim advocate with My Sister’s Place.
Even with extensive counseling, Savannah says she still suffers the effects of the assault, but she is coping.
“I am a religious person,” she says. “I have prayed to be able to forgive, and I have forgiven, but forgiveness doesn’t erase what happened, and I still have the scars. That won’t change.”
Savannah also says she will raise her son to know her story and be aware of issues surrounding sexual assault. She will teach him to respect women as equals and to understand that a woman’s right to safety is pre-eminent.
That, says Webb, is the best method for prevention. Educating boys and men that “no” means “no,” that women’s wishes are to be respected, is the only way to make the numbers better. When we tell women how to avoid rape, we put the burden of blame on them, when it really belongs with the people who are committing the crimes.