Op-Ed: Crime of Sexual Assault Must Not Shame the Victim

Barry Grissom, U.S. Attorney for the District of KansasSexual assault is a devastating crime that warrants our focused attention because it is often misunderstood and incorrectly portrayed. Myths still dominate the collective thinking. Victims are blamed and often shamed into silence.

It’s commonly believed that rape is something that only happens between strangers. This is not the case. Statistics show that the majority of rape victims know their perpetrator.

Many believe that consent to sexual activity is a flexible concept. It is not.

Regardless of whether you or someone you know has been personally affected by sexual violence, you only have to read the newspaper or turn on the television to realize the extensive nature of its impact on our society and around the world. Sexual violence knows no boundaries, reaches every age, race, class, gender and sexual orientation. It affects entire communities from high schools to college campuses, the workplace and our own homes.

Some populations are particularly vulnerable, such as older residents, children and people with disabilities. Plainly and indisputably: No one asks or deserves to be sexually assaulted.

Researchers estimate 18 percent of U.S. women report having been raped at some point. For some populations, rates of sexual violence are even higher. Nearly one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Many men are also victims of sexual violence. One in 33 men will be victimized in his lifetime.

But a deeper look at these numbers reveals another critical concern. Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2008 less than half of rapes or sexual assaults against women were reported. Many victims will never seek justice for a host of fears: not being believed, reliving traumatic experiences, retribution.

The effects on victims and society are profound. Many rape victims suffer severe long-term physical and emotional difficulties. They experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even thoughts of suicide As a chilling example of its far-reaching grasp, studies show that one in four women will experience sexual assault over the course of their college career. To meet this astounding reality head on, last year various leaders from the Justice Department traveled to college campuses around the country to engage in frank conversations with school administrators and students about the impact of sexual violence on campus. We know that too often the onus is placed on the victim to figure out how to feel safe again and be able to continue on his or her path to a successful college career. The responsibility should instead be on our shoulders. We must reassess and figure out how we can do better.

As the U.S. attorney for Kansas, and a member of the Department of Justice, I view working for greater public safety not only as my job but as a moral imperative. Our greatest hope is that more citizens will join us in our quest to meet the needs of victims, hold offenders accountable and put an end to sexual violence here and around the world.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.