“The worst part was the way that my family wanted to pretend that it never happened. After i slit my wrists, after i came home from the hospital, after my parents found out the truth … it became the official skeleton in the closet that no one would ever ever ever talk about again.”
These words, which are part of a jarring account by an anonymous victim of sexual violence, appear on a blog launched by local activist Lindsey Simerly to spur dialogue about rape and sexual assault (see “In-Your-Face Therapy” below).
“Talk about it” is an oft-repeated phrase among advocates for rape victims. And groups such as Our VOICE, an Asheville nonprofit that operates a local rape-crisis hot line, say facilitating dialogue about sexual violence is the key to combating it.
“It’s a silent crime,” notes Executive Director Barbara Anderson. “There’s a big discrepancy between how many come forward to us, as opposed to how many file formal charges. It isn’t an unusual crime—it just isn’t a crime that makes the news.”
In recent months, however, a handful of unrelated, alleged rapes actually did make the news. Local newspapers ran stories concerning six alleged rapes in or around downtown Asheville, and the Police Department went so far as to issue a set of safety tips for women walking alone at night. The APD issues press releases about reported rapes only when the attacker was a stranger to the victim, Community Relations Manager Melissa Williams explains. But the vast majority of rapes, notes Anderson, are committed by someone known to the victim.
Still, for Anderson and Elaine Dutton, Our VOICE’s rape-prevention coordinator, the sudden media attention actually had a silver lining: It spotlighted a crime that they say is underreported, seldom discussed and that, for the most part, goes unpunished.
Official rape stats don’t reflect hot-line calls
Our VOICE, which serves all of Buncombe County, receives 300 to 400 calls per year on its crisis line, says Anderson. The callers may be recent rape victims, concerned friends or partners of sexual-assault survivors, or people still suffering emotionally from sexual abuse that occurred many years ago. About 100 of those calls are emergency requests for an advocate to go to the hospital to assist someone who’s just been raped and is getting a physical exam to collect evidence. Law enforcement is also alerted in those cases.
But society doesn’t treat rape the same as other violent crimes: Until recently, for example, it was the only crime for which the victim was expected to shoulder a portion of the cost of collecting evidence. Rape victims had to foot part of the bill for the forensic exam, which uses a “rape kit” to collect evidence that could help identify the attacker. An article in The News & Observer of Raleigh recounted the story of a woman who was raped in 2006, had a rape-kit exam, and later received a $600 bill because her health insurance didn’t cover the procedure. This summer, the North Carolina General Assembly approved more than $1 million for a program that covers both the cost of the exam and an initial visit to a mental-health provider.
It’s impossible to know how many rapes are never reported to Our VOICE, let alone to law enforcement. What’s clear is that only a small percentage are ever documented in official crime statistics. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a nonprofit that offers resources for victims of sexual assault, estimates that some 60 percent of rapes are never officially reported.
In Buncombe County, it appears that even fewer victims ever come forward to file an official report. In 2007, the APD logged 28 rape reports, compared with the roughly 100 emergency calls Our VOICE averages per year. And so far this year, the police have recorded 27 reports, according to Crime Analyst Ed Eads. Between 1998 and 2008, the APD averaged about 33 rape reports annually, N.C. Department of Justice statistics show—about one-third of the number reported on the crisis line.
Meanwhile, filing a police report is no guarantee of an arrest, much less a conviction. The police then open an investigation, but these typically don’t go anywhere, statistics show. In 2007, the APD made two arrests for rape; and to date, there have been no arrests this year. A similar picture emerges at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office: In 2006, there were 17 reports of rape and one arrest; last year, there were 19 reported rapes and four arrests (no data was available for 2008).
And the number of convictions is lower still. There were two convictions for first-degree rape in Buncombe County in 2006 and one in 2007, state court records show. (“Rape,” unlike other forms of sexual assault, refers to actual penetration. This figure does not include other kinds of sex offenses.)
Rape cases face many obstacles in the criminal-justice system. “With rape and sexual assault, it’s difficult … because there are so many variables,” Anderson explains. “Is the victim willing to press charges? Is there enough evidence? Does it have merit enough to go to trial? When it comes to a younger woman … and if it looks like there are any questions at all—Was alcohol involved? Were there drugs involved? He says/she says?—if it’s difficult to prosecute, it’s not going to happen.
“What’s more difficult to understand,” she continues, “is that throughout the course of the assault, we expect the victim to have a perfect memory: to know exactly what happened when; to have presence of mind. If you are in a car accident, chances are you are going to forget something, because you’re traumatized.”
A further complication is that people do sometimes make false accusations, notes Anderson. “One of the hardest things we struggle with is that there are women who have used rape as a tool, if you will—not to anyone’s benefit. But that’s the exception, not the rule.”
Of the six recently publicized rapes in Asheville, one—which allegedly took place in Carolina Lane—was later ruled unfounded by the APD due to a lack of evidence, inconsistent accounts and because the victim stopped communicating with police, they say. Before that, the police had actually issued a composite sketch of the suspect, based on a description given by the woman. Xpress’ attempts to reach her failed, but an Internet search showed her to be a 25-year-old college graduate working as a youth counselor.
Educating potential offenders, not victims
To address rape and other forms of sexual assault, Our VOICE focuses heavily on education and promoting community dialogue. The group’s 26-member Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force includes representatives from various local entities, including the APD and the Asheville City Council. The task force has launched a community survey to assess local perspectives on sexual abuse, asking respondents to indicate to what extent they agree or disagree with 21 statements. “It is usually only women who dress suggestively that are raped,” one line reads. Another says, “Men from nice middle-class homes almost never rape.”
Our VOICE is also taking part in a pilot program funded by a federal grant and managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The idea is to concentrate educational efforts on groups “that we know are a high probability of being perpetrators,” Anderson explains.
In the past, she notes, “Most of the focus [has been] on the victim—the women and girls. It’s as if we have to figure out how to not have this happen to us.” The new approach aims to change the attitudes and behavior of potential offenders instead. (The vast majority of rape victims are women, statistics show, but RAINN estimates that one in 33 men has either been raped or been the target of an attempted rape.)
“We try to engage men through these prevention efforts,” Dutton explains. “We try to recruit them to be our allies.” The first of these “prevention interventions,” as they’re called, was a seven-week program involving a group of UNCA fraternity members. “They were really receptive,” says Dutton. “We talked about a lot of topics that relate to sexual violence, such as homophobia, gender stereotypes, alcohol- and drug-facilitated rape.” Once the results of the community assessment are in, she adds, they’ll be used to help determine other groups to target.
Our VOICE has been active in Asheville since 1974, when a half-dozen women got together and set up a rape-crisis hot line at the YWCA. “They published it, sort of, by fliers and word-of-mouth. One of those women would be available to go out anywhere in the community and meet a woman who’d been assaulted or raped or had any kind of issue with sexual violence,” Anderson explains. The informal group wasn’t chartered as a nonprofit and had no funding. In addition, she notes, those early efforts were somewhat secretive. “It wasn’t safe to say this had happened to you. No one really believed [the victims], and there really wasn’t anywhere to get any service.”
In some ways, things have improved dramatically since then. Our VOICE is now a full-fledged organization offering counseling, case management and more, and other local nonprofits—including Helpmate, Child Abuse Prevention Services and Women at Risk—offer similar kinds of assistance.
One fledgling local effort to support survivors of sexual assault takes a radically different approach. Simerly, an artist and activist who made an unsuccessful bid for Asheville City Council last year, has launched a project that infuses traditional support-group techniques with a strong dose of what she terms “righteously pissed-off rage.” A considerable departure from Our VOICE’s efforts, Simerly’s purely do-it-yourself campaign is centered on the blog, which is titled Radical Survivor Asheville/Rage, Fear, Sorrow, Activism: A Journey Toward Healing from Sexual Abuse in Asheville NC. Her goal is to facilitate candid dialogue that she says can be cathartic for victims of sexual assault. Posttraumatic stress disorder, the same psychological affliction that plagues war veterans, has also been widely documented among victims of sexual violence: Nearly one-third of all rape victims develop PTSD as a result, according to a 1997 report funded by the U.S. Justice Department.
“Despite the huge numbers of victims and perpetrators, sexual violence is almost completely silent,” one blog post begins. “Unlike other national crises such as cancer, unemployment, lack of health insurance and war, talk of sexual violence is virtually nonexistent in political, educational or personal speech.”
Another component of the Radical Survivor project is an upcoming show, titled Radical Artistic Weaponry (RAW for short), that will feature art and music created as a means of coping with traumatizing abuse. Described on the blog as a “really f**king in-your-face art show,” Simerly says the emphasis on anger stems from her own experience of using such creatively channeled expression to heal emotionally. No date or venue has been set for the show yet, but Simerly has put out a call for submissions. (To learn more, visit the site at www.radicalsurvivorasheville.blogspot.com.)
The blog also encourages survivors to post accounts of their own experiences. “We are trying to bring the personal into the public sphere,” writes Simerly. “We want you to tell your story not for yourself, but for all of the people out there who have never heard it. We want you to tell your story because we believe the first step in stopping the cycle of abuse is to bring it out into the open: to tell the truth, to be honest, to speak without euphemisms. Because this is not a personal issue, it is a societal disease—and we need to stop it.”
Room for improvement
According to official statistics, the incidence of rape has decreased dramatically nationwide since the early 1970s, when Our VOICE first hooked up a phone line to reach out to victims. So says the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey. And the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network notes that official rape reports have decreased 60 percent since 1993.
In Buncombe County, however, the picture is somewhat murkier. On the one hand, Durham County—which has a population similar to Buncombe’s—averaged 89 rapes per year between 1997 and 2006, compared with Buncombe’s 47. However, the number of reported rapes has fluctuated year by year, showing neither a clear increase nor a decline.
“I think the stats that are talked about more than any other are the ones reported to the police, and they’re just very different from the ones we get,” says Dutton. The number of emergency calls on the hot line, she notes, “have been pretty consistent from year to year.”
As for the bigger picture, Dutton says: “I think it’s a cultural issue. I think that our society has progressed and changed in positive ways, but there’s still change to be made.”
And if local efforts to shine the spotlight on the crime and its repercussions succeed, she observes, “We may actually see [the number of official reports of rape] go up before they go down. We’ll hopefully create an environment in which it is more comfortable to talk about this.”