Advocates, law enforcement officials explain why most rapes go unreported
by Madasyn Czebiniak
Nov 02, 2013 | 4576 views |  0 comments | 52 52 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Over the summer Trace Fleming-Smith, a victim’s advocate at 2nd Chance, received a phone call from a woman who said she had been raped by the man she was dating. The caller didn’t want to tell the police about it.

“She didn’t want to go to the hospital or to the police because she said people would say it was her fault,” Fleming-Smith said.

Government figures show that Alabama women report rape at twice the rate of the rest of the country, more than 1,200 such crimes in 2012. But as alarming as those figures are, law enforcement officials and advocates for victims believe rape is far more common. Many crimes, perhaps 90 percent of them in one advocate's estimate, go unreported.

Fleming-Smith said 2nd Chance sees around 150 new victims per year on sexual assault claims — but like the woman from the phone call, many don’t want to report what happened to them to the police.

“I think that happens a lot of the time because they feel like somehow they'll be blamed,” Fleming-Smith said.

Jennifer Weems, an assistant district attorney for Calhoun County who specializes in sex crimes, said violation and humiliation are prevalent in such cases.

“Sex offenders go for vulnerable people who at times have had problems with the criminal justice system and don’t know if they would be believed. Witnesses are primarily going to be the victim and the defendant. In most cases victims understand it’s their word against the perpetrators word,” she said.

Because many people choose not to report rapes to law enforcement officials, the reported numbers that are available vastly undercount the occurrence of rape, advocates and law enforcement sources say.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a total of 84,376 rapes were reported to law enforcement officials in the United States in 2012, a rate of 26.9 rapes per 100,000 people. There were 1,269 reported rapes in Alabama in 2012, for a rate of 50.4 rapes per 100,000 women — a 10 percent decrease since 2011, when 1,404 rapes were reported.

In Alabama, rape is defined as non-consensual vaginal penetration between a man and a woman. According to Weems, sexual violations between two men or two women fall under sodomy.

Georgia had a rate of 21.4 reported rapes for every 100,000 people. Florida had 27.2, Mississippi had 27.5 and Tennessee 31.5.

The Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center shows there were 39 reported rapes in Calhoun County out of a population of 117,296 in 2012. There were 53 reported rapes in 2011. According to campus crime statistics, Jacksonville State University had two reported cases of sexual violence in 2012, two in 2011 and one in 2010.

Weems said she wasn’t surprised at Alabama’s reported rape numbers, but thinks that the actual number of crimes is higher. She said

things such as shame and stigma most likely contributed to the lack of reporting. Advocates for victims cited vulnerability, self-blame, ridicule and lack of knowledge of local crisis centers as reasons victim’s don’t report occurrences of rape to local law enforcement officials.

“For every rape reported to the police there are nine that aren’t,” Fleming-Smith said.

Paul Daymond, spokesman for the FBI’s Birmingham division, said it's difficult to accurately measure the number of underreported sex crimes. The data the FBI works with are pulled from voluntary reports from state and local law enforcement agencies, he said. Katherine Richert, the laboratory director for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences in Montgomery, said she doesn’t know how statistics on unreported rapes can be gathered, either.

“I’m not sure anyone would be able to capture any type of number on that because we only have the numbers that are reported,” Richert said.

One way unreported rape data has been collected has been through prevalence surveys. One such survey, known as the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, is conducted through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NISVS is an ongoing, nationally representative random-digit-dial telephone survey that collects information on experiences of sexual violence, stalking and intimate-partner violence among women and men age 18 or older; 16,507 adults were interviewed for the NISVS in 2010.

Using data from the 2010 survey, researchers estimate that 321,000 women in Alabama have been raped sometime in their lives.

Tracy Cox, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, believes the numbers in the NISVS survey are accurate because the survey was based on anonymous disclosure that may have encouraged more sexual violence survivors to come forward.

“More people are more prone to talk about sexual violence on a phone survey than report it to the police,” Cox said.

What Will My Friends Think?

A memo released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011, known in education circles as a “dear colleague” letter, describes sexual violations as acts perpetrated against a person’s will.

The memo says acts of sexual violence on college campuses are prohibited by the anti-discrimination section in federal law known as Title IX.

Title IX, a portion of a 1972 education bill, guarantees the right to gender equality on college campuses, said Tim King, JSU’s Title IX coordinator.

According to JSU’s student code of conduct, sexual violations can include things such as unwanted touching or fondling, non-consensual vaginal or anal intercourse, stalking, harassment or sex when the victim is no longer able to consent to a sexual act because of drug or alcohol use. Both the JSU student code of conduct and the Alabama Criminal Code state that drug or alcohol use are not valid excuses for a non-consensual sexual encounter.

King said he doesn’t know how things are handled at other universities in terms of sexual violations but said JSU has a no-tolerance policy.

“When people come to my office, they’re terrified,” he said, referring to victims of sexual violations.

JSU Student Affairs head counselor Julie Nix said that before the 2011 memo was released, what was considered to be a sexual violation was vague. The letter, she said, gives specifics to universities.

“Hopefully colleges are trying to do more. I know we are,” she said.

Nix said she believes a college environment may contribute to students not reporting sexual violations.

“There are a lot of factors that keep students from coming forward,” Nix said. “I think it’s the fear of social consequences.”

Nix has worked at JSU since 2005 and has been with the counseling department since 2009. During her time as a counselor, Nix said many victims preferred to come to her or to other counselors to share their stories than report alleged sexual violations to university police.

Nix said she believes students who attend smaller colleges such as JSU might have a fear of becoming ostracized from their friends, clubs or athletic teams if they report being victims of sexual violence. Nix said college campuses are different than other places because of proximity.

“If you go to a bar in Anniston and a guy slips something in your drink and you go back to his house, things happen and you decide to press charges, your chances of running into him again are very small,” she said, but in a college setting, a victim and an attacker might share a class or live in the same residence hall.

“There are crossed paths and mutual friends. Victims wonder, ‘If I report this what will my friends or the attacker’s friends think?’” Nix said.

Fleming-Smith agreed.

“Unfortunately there is a lot of victim-blaming in society,” Fleming-Smith said.

Talking It Out

Fleming-Smith said 2nd Chance offers services such as a 24-hour hotline, crisis counseling and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Program, in which victim advocates accompany victims to local hospitals for forensic exams. Advocates at 2nd Chance are also willing to present information on domestic or sexual violence anywhere.

“We’ll talk to anyone. I gave the cashier at the store a five-minute lecture on rape culture. He had no idea what he was getting into when he was bagging my groceries,” Fleming-Smith said.

Nix said the JSU Office of Student Affairs has been doing more to increase sexual violation awareness on campus.

“When I got here I wanted our students to know who we [the counselors] were. I wanted people to see me and think, ‘Ms. Nix looks like someone I could talk to.’ I think it’s working,” she said.

Nix said JSU has focused on sexual-violation awareness by implementing things such as a “safe zone plus” project. School officials, faculty and staff can sign up to help counsel students with difficulties, which could involve sexual violence or harassment, Nix said.

All safe-zone advocates have green circle stickers with the words “Safe Zone Plus” in white lettering on their doors or near their location on campus, or can be found on JSU’s website.

Nix said she hopes students who might not feel comfortable going to police, King or herself might confide in another advocate they might feel safer with.

The school also holds self-defense classes in conjunction with the Jacksonville police and has rallies for Take Back the Night, an initiative to end sexual assault.

Nix added she and three of her colleagues have also been working to obtain a three-year grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women. The $300,000 grant would help JSU pay for sexual-violation procedures training for residence assistants and peer educators, a full sexual response coordinator and team for the campus and mandatory first-year training for all students. It would also pay for campus disciplinary officers, full-time employees who make sure students adhere to their school’s student code of conduct.

Fighting Back

Alexandra Brodsky, a 2012 graduate of Yale University, is fighting to stop sexual violations on college campuses. As a member of ED Act Now, an advocacy group fighting for more Title IX enforcement on college campuses, she hopes to inspire change. ED Act Now is made up of students who are fed up with the way sexual violence has been dealt with at their schools, Brodsky said.

Brodsky said the U.S. Department of Education hasn’t held colleges accountable for actions that violate Title IX, which is where ED Act Now comes in. Brodsky said she’s heard some colleges encourage their students to stay quiet about alleged sexual violations, which may be another reason there aren’t as many reports as there could be.

The group handed a petition of more than 100,000 signatures to officials with the Department of Education on July 15, demanding universities follow through on sexual assault complaints from their students.

Representatives with the Department of Education did not comment when asked about the event, but did provide background information in an email.

“In the last four years, we’ve taken unprecedented steps to raise awareness of sexual violence and its impact as well as to exercise our authority under Title IX to comprehensively address and prevent sexual harassment and violence,” the email said. “While proud of our accomplishments to help prevent and address sexual violence, our conviction is that there is always more that can and should be done and we remain open to feedback, suggestions, and input from students, schools, parents and communities for how to take further steps toward eliminating sexual violence on our nation’s campuses.”

Brodsky said her own experiences with sexual violence and conversations with fellow students were the reasons behind her cause.

“It’s important for movements like this to be led by people affected by it,” she said. “Someone tried to rape me when I was a freshman. The school pretty much said, ‘Yeah, that’s bad,’ and didn’t do anything about it. They want to keep stories as quiet as possible because they don’t want it leaking to the media,” she said.

Brodsky said a complaint was issued to Yale University by 16 people, including herself, in 2011. Though her alma mater has gotten better at handling sexual violations, a lot of work remains, she said.

Fleming-Smith said she wishes more victims would file police reports because while sexual violations may happen to individual people, they also diminish communities.

Nix said the thought of attackers still being out there, hurting others, is why she wishes more survivors would speak up.

“Research shows those who sexually assault will do so more than once,” Nix said.

Fleming-Smith said though some victims may not want the police there, it’s still important for someone else to be.

“You might be the very first person a survivor shares their story with, but you also may be the last based on what you say and how you behave,” she said. “It's not always perfect but there's a lot of us trying to make it work. We have good nurse examiners and good cops. We have people in the community who think sexual assault is repulsive and want to see change. Rape hurts everyone.”

Staff writer Madasyn Czebiniak: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @MCzebiniak_Star.

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