SEXUAL ASSAULT: HELP IS A CLICK AWAY

by Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney, and Jerald Monahan, Police Chief of Yavapai College

This past year saw revelations of sexual harassment in several different arenas, including entertainment, news media, sports and politics. Some of what has been exposed are criminal acts, many of which were committed years ago. So why now? What has prompted so many to report past sexual misconduct behavior? The status and position of the sexual predator placed victims in a state of vulnerability, and many of the recently identified sexual offenders had the ability to impact their victims’ professional careers. Sometimes, however, victims are silent out of fear of not being believed. The victims of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City police officer rapist, were targeted because, as Prosecutor Lori McConnell put it, “He counted on the fact no one would believe them and no one would care.”

Survivors of sexual violence faces many obstacles as they navigate life after the assault including feelings of confusion, abandonment, and not knowing where to turn. Decisions about what to do and when to do it are not made easily or quickly. It should be no surprise, and should even be expected, for survivors to delay making a police report. Negative reactions to a victim’s disclosure of sexual assault, including disbelief, anger and blame, cause additional trauma over and above the assault itself. These negative reactions may come from the very people the victim first turns to for support, such as friends and family members.

Start By Believing

The Start by Believing Campaign, a program of End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI), was launched in 2011. The goal is to communicate a message of support and understanding when responding to reports of sexual assault. The campaign encourages the listener to “start by believing,” to be supportive, to ask how you can help and to avoid “why” questions. Victims of sexual assault who experience a supportive and compassionate response, regardless of the criminal justice system outcome, have lower rates of post-traumatic stress than victims who experience secondary trauma in the form of disbelief and blame.

Seek Then Speak

A second tool was recently developed by EVAWI to help survivors navigate the confusion. Seek Then Speak is a digital aid to help victims gather information, make decisions, figure out what options are right for them, and get in touch with victim services in their area. The tool puts the victims in charge, allows them to remain anonymous, and assists them to report the assault to authorities when ready to do so.

Seek Then Speak is available on your desktop, mobile phone, and even a landline. It is content rich in information about sexual violence, including the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

If you are the person to whom a victim reports, learn how to best help, what to say and what to avoid saying by visiting Start By Believing at startbybelieving.org and Seek Then Speak at seekthenspeak.org.

If you are a victim of sexual misconduct, access Seek Then Speak in the privacy of your home computer or cell phone. Research what has happened, learn about sexual violence, discover your options and what to expect if you choose to disclose the incident. Seek then Speak also provides the name and contact information for either law enforcement or victim advocacy for the jurisdiction where you live or where the assault occurred.

Sexual assault continues to be one of the most under reported violent crimes in our nation. Whether you are a victim or the person to whom a victim reports, these tools help break the silence by assisting victims in feeling safe to report.

Sheila Polk is in her 17th year as the elected Yavapai County Attorney. She has worked for 35 years in the criminal justice system in Arizona. She currently serves as chair for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council and chair for the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.

Jerald Monahan is the law enforcement liaison for the nonprofit End Violence Against Women International and the police chief of Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. He is a 39-year veteran public safety official in Arizona and a past president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police.