Trigger Warning: this post discusses rape and sexual assault
Fear of reprisal by the assailant.
Lack of proof.
Not wanting family or friends to know.
Fear of police hostility.
Anticipation that the police would not take it seriously or not want to be bothered.
All of the above are reasons that rape victims do not often report their assaults to the police (or even college campus officials). Other reasons include not understanding what constitutes rape and uncertainty over how much control they will wield if they go to the police. In the small town of Ashland, Oregon, one woman pioneered a new program–the You Have Options Program–in an effort to root out serial rapists on college campuses.
When Ashland Police Detective Carrie Hull created the program, she had one goal in mind: for rape victims to feel safe talking to the police. Hull realized that her department wasn’t even getting the opportunity to investigate allegations of rape because victims were dropping out of the criminal justice system. Many times it was because they were afraid the police would not believe them.
Niki, a student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, was raped by her ex-boyfriend in 2013. Months later, when she walked into the Women’s Resource Center at SOU, she was referred to Angela Fleischer, who helped developed the You Have Options Program with the Ashland PD. Immediately, Niki was given options.
The first option Fleischer gave Niki was whether she wanted to let the university deal with the crime or report it to the police. “I had been reading about all the Title IX issues going on in the country, and I was like, I think I’m going to let the police department go ahead with this one,” Niki says.
Title IX is part of the US Education Amendments of 1972 and requires colleges to provide a safe place for all students to learn. It prohibits sex based discrimination in education and requires schools to investigate any allegations of sexual assault reported to the school by a student (Title IX doesn’t just apply to women. it applies to men, women, gender non-conforming students, faculty, and staff. More about Title IX). Giving Niki the option of choosing the university or the police helped give her control over who investigated her sexual assault. Detective Hull set up microphones in Niki’s apartment, and as a result, they were able to obtain a confession from Niki’s ex-boyfriend, Luke. Even with that, Niki was still in charge. She had the option to decide whether to bring Luke in for questioning. She got to choose when Hull would arrest Luke. She got to choose when the state would press charges.
“I considered it heavily,” Niki says. “I had to take into account revealing my personal self, the social effects, the victim blaming. But I decided it was impossible to continue my education taking the same classes as him.”
Luke was eventually expelled from SOU, convicted, and is now a registered sex offender. “I went into this knowing nothing about this process only to later figure out that I am in a small, small percentage of people that get justice,” Niki says. “I wish this hadn’t happened, and I’m going to wish that forever, but if it had to happen, how fortunate am I that it happened here in Ashland?”
I am sorry that Niki was raped by her scumbag ex. Rape is a vile, degrading, demeaning, dehumanizing act of power and dominance. No one should be subjected to it. If they are, I hope that they will be given the options that Niki was. I hope that they will feel as comfortable going to their local authorities as Niki did going to local law enforcement. The Ashland PD weren’t always this good at handling sexual assault cases though:
“We were not a great police department in our response to sexual violence,” Hull says, of the time before the program. “There were all of these great resources that we had never engaged with.” Hull began to dig into the available research, and she soon found a few major themes that seemed to explain why the current system wasn’t working. The first was that serial rapists commit most of these crimes, but few victims wanted to identify them. In many cases, victims were already traumatized and had heard horror stories about the criminal justice system, or by the time they recognized what had happened was rape, they thought it would be too late to go to the police.
“This is such a small segment of the population that commits so many offenses,” says Hull. “If we are going to try and have an effect on sexual violence, we need to make it so it is really hard to keep victims silent.” The second reason the system often failed victims was because rapists tended to be very adept at targeting women who were already vulnerable, or lacked credibility in the eyes of law enforcement or a jury. They often sought out women who were seen as mentally unstable or promiscuous, or who were simply too inebriated to give a reliable account.
“Perpetrators start out picking a victim a jury wouldn’t believe. It is premeditated,” Hull says. “It is a brilliant way to perpetrate crime, and it works, because we as a society have bought into [blaming the victim].”
Ah yes, that pernicious enabler of Rape Culture: victim blaming. Hull is right. As a society, we have bought into victim blaming–hook, line, and sinker. That the victim of a sexual assault is somehow, in any way, responsible for their assault disgusts me. There is only one common denominator in all cases of rape or sexual assault: a perpetrator willing to rape or sexually assault someone. The amount of alcohol a victim drinks has nothing to do with it. You can be drunk or sober and get raped (and if your judgement is impaired, you cannot legally consent to sex, so if someone tries to have sex with you, they are committing sexual assault). Attire has no effect on reducing or increasing one’s odds of being raped. People are raped whether they are dressed head to toe, or if they are nude. Being around strangers has no effect on being raped. Most rapes (between 75-90%) are committed by someone the victim knows. You’re more likely to be raped by someone you know than a complete stranger (yet this myth persists). So the whole “don’t be alone, be with someone” doesn’t protect people from being raped. It doesn’t matter if you’re sexually active or not (which is code for “she’s a slut and deserved it”. No one deserves to be raped. EVER). FFS, 15% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 12. It doesn’t matter where you go; there is nowhere that is free from rapists (more than 50% of all reported rapes occurred within one mile of the victims’ home, or at their home). People can get raped at their job. At their church. At their school or university (see here for further myths about rape). No amount of victim blaming is going to stop rape and sexual assault from happening. We have to dismantle these myths and discuss the facts honestly. We have to change the culture to reduce the incidence of rape.
Changing the culture is exactly what Carrie Hull sought.
To help rebuild the trust between victims of sexual assault and the Ashland PD, Hull, with the help of Angela Fleischer and Susan Moen of Ashland’s Sexual Assault Response Team interviewed victims and asked them how they wanted to be treated by police.
Victims told her they needed time to decide how to proceed. They also asked for anonymity, so friends, family, and peers wouldn’t hear of the report before they were ready to share that information. “We found we needed to get people to a place they didn’t feel like they were being pulled or pushed through the process,” says Hull. “And instead they were leading the way.”
When You Have Options launched last year, the program not only let survivors decide whether they wanted their report to be an anonymous tip or a full criminal investigation — police only proceed with an investigation if it is a matter of public safety, or if a survivor asks them to — but it also allowed survivors to upgrade or downgrade their investigation at any time. “We shifted our focus as a team to what does a survivor want, and out of that came better healing, but also identifying way more perpetrators,” says Hull.
The result of that shift in focus? A 106% increase in reports of sexual assault since the program was launched in 2013. One-hundred six percent. That’s quite a bit more people coming forward and telling their stories. That’s a good bit more people feeling comfortable coming to the police about being sexually assaulted. For victims of sexual assault a rape, a loss of control is a huge problem. This is one way they can regain some measure of control over their lives. Greater numbers of victims reporting their assaults is a good thing.
Although Niki still struggles with the assault, and the resulting social fallout, one place where she feels safe is with the police. In fact, she feels so protected, she did something else unusual: She granted her rapist leniency. In her case, at least, greater compassion for the victim, spread to compassion for the assailant as well. “He had never broken the law in his life, not even a speeding ticket, and I learned that first-time sex offenders are more likely to reoffend if you remove them from society and put them in a flawed system — unfortunately the prison system is flawed at the moment,” she says. Her voice wavers, and her eyes well up as she talks.
At Niki’s recommendation, the D.A. offered Luke a plea bargain. He is now out on probation and is in therapy. The whole process took about three months.
“This is his last chance,” Niki says. “I still question it; even now I find moments where I’m like, I should have put him away forever. I don’t like that part of me because it sounds vengeful. How is a person supposed to unlearn a bad behavior if we treat them badly too? You show kindness to someone else, and they will start to emulate that as well. But I got to decide what was best for me. Most people don’t get the choice.”
I think her response is admirable, and there’s likely some truth to it. Our prison system doesn’t exactly rehabilitate people. We can throw them in there until they die, but that costs taxpayer money and doesn’t give the person a chance to unlearn the horrible behavior they engaged in. I’m glad that Niki had the choice in how to handle the investigation of her assault. It worked for her. Now if only this program can spread across the country and the world…then victims might feel more comfortable going to the police. When that happens, a huge chunk of Rape Culture will be chipped away.
Special thanks to Iris Vander Pluym over at Perry Street Palace for bringing this story to my attention.