President Obama has declared April to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month
Assistant United States Attorney
As South Dakota’s United States Attorney, each week I review new cases of sexual assault from across our state. The reported crimes that cross my desk include rape, incest, child sexual abuse, and human trafficking. The number of these cases that we investigate on an annual basis is alarming but should not be surprising. We know that approximately 19 million women and three million men in the United States have been the victim of at least one sexual assault.
Today, you will likely cross paths with someone who has been the victim of a sexual assault. Sexual violence is a complex crime affecting every community in South Dakota. It has no boundaries in terms of gender, geography, race, ethnicity, economic class, or sexual orientation. But we also know that South Dakota is home to some of the most high risk communities when it comes to sexual assault. For example, each female Native American baby born in the United States has a 1 in 3 chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Additional populations that are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault include children, people with disabilities, and the elderly.
Sexual assault is a frequently misunderstood and often incorrectly portrayed crime. One of the most common misconceptions is that it occurs only between strangers. In fact, the vast majority of rape cases that our office prosecutes involve situations in which the victim was familiar with the perpetrator. Additionally, we see cases where individuals still believe that consent to engage in sexual activity is a flexible concept. It is not. The law in South Dakota is very clear on this point -- an individual cannot engage in force, threats, or coercion to gain consent for sexual activity, nor is it permissible to engage in sexual contact with someone incapable of giving consent.
We also know that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes. The Department of Justice estimates that nationally, less than half of all rapes or sexual assaults against women are actually reported to law enforcement. Victims may choose not to seek justice because of embarrassment or shame, a fear that they will not be believed, or because they fear retribution from the community. From a criminal justice perspective, we must work to foster an environment of trust in which victims feel comfortable working with law enforcement so that they can begin to heal and we are able to seek justice on their behalf.
President Obama has declared April to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We owe it to sexual assault survivors to make this month more than just a time of reflection and education. As a prosecutor and South Dakota’s chief federal law enforcement officer, I know that most survivors of sexual assault are more interested in justice than sympathy. They want and deserve action to lock up predators and prevent these sorts of crimes from occurring again.
In an effort to reduce this sort of violence, the South Dakota United States Attorney’s Office is planning the state’s second statewide Tribal Listening Conference. This event will be devoted exclusively to addressing violence against women. Its purpose will be to strengthen South Dakota’s cooperative relationships among agencies and officials at the state, federal, and tribal levels. We will also focus on providing needed services to survivors of sexual and domestic assault. During this conference, political and law enforcement leaders will have the opportunity to listen to survivors and their advocates. As participants on the front lines of the fight against sexual assault, it will be our responsibility to learn from what they have to say, and just as importantly, to act on what we learn.