“If for a moment, everyone in the world who has been sexually assaulted would glow, you would not believe the brightness.”
That’s how Kimberly Lonsway, a San Luis Obispo resident and director of research for End Violence Against Women International, illustrates a disturbing statistic: one in five women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.
But when crime hits close to home and your own child, sibling or best friend tells you they were raped, sexually assaulted, or molested — will you start by believing?
This uncomfortable question is center stage with the countywide “Start by Believing” campaign, which kicked off Friday with several city proclamations, a social media effort, and the support of local law enforcement, health and government agencies.
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The goal is to prepare citizens to respond with compassion when a victim discloses a sexual assault, in turn creating the circumstances for healing, justice, and prevention of further violence.
Leaders of the newly merged North County Women’s Shelter and Sexual Assault Recovery & Prevention Center explained the weighty implications that one disclosure conversation can have on an entire community.
Experts in the field know that a sexual assault victim — if met with doubt — will likely never tell another person about a sexual assault or seek appropriate help. The betrayal of disbelief can deepen her trauma, research shows. She may experience long-term emotional pain and alienation that leads to health problems, loss of work and wages, drug or alcohol abuse, and even suicidal behavior, said Lonsway.
Worse yet, the perpetrator may go on victimizing — most predators rape an average of six times, according to studies.
Additionally, the National Institute of Justice estimated that the cost to a community of a single rape — to the victim, insurers, the government, and family — is more than $151,000.
To start by believing achieves a dramatically different result, said Dan Dow, a SLO County deputy district attorney who prosecutes felony rape and domestic violence cases.
The victim will feel less alone and more supported to reclaim the power she has lost. She will be more likely to seek the help she needs to heal physically and emotionally and continue contributions to her family and community.
And if he or she chooses to report the crime, the perpetrator’s name will be known by law enforcement, which can help solve or link other cases and lead to a conviction, preventing future rapes.
“Hopefully this [campaign] will result in victims realizing that they can disclose, so we can get the best investigation done, the best case prepared, and achieve justice as a result,” Dow said.
However, “prosecution is not the only outcome we care about,” said Jennifer Adams, NCWS/SARP Center executive director. “We want to create a culture where people feel safe and believed to say what’s happened to them.”
The Start by Believing campaign was created by the Washington-based organization End Violence Against Women International, and is being implemented by numerous community partners including local nonprofits, the county health department, the Sheriff’s Office and local police departments. The cities of San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, Morro Bay, Grover Beach, Paso Robles and Pismo Beach made official “Start by Believing” proclamations starting Friday.
Organizers are also encouraging citizens to take photos holding signs that say “I start by believing,” and post them on their Facebook profiles to spread solidarity.
Because so many victims remain silent, it is difficult to estimate local sexual assault rates. In 2011, the SARP Center assisted 239 female victims and 28 male victims with crisis intervention services, and 107 survivors received accompaniment by an advocate to medical exams, law enforcement interviews, and court proceedings.
Other communities implementing the campaign have seen an increase in reported sexual assaults and survivors seeking services.
“That’s what this is about. We can change the whole trajectory,” said Jesse Torrey, associate director for the NCWS/SARP Center.
When in doubt
When a loved one acknowledges being sexually assaulted, “as a parent, I can imagine that moment and the fear,” Torrey said. It’s like “when your child runs into the street, and you want to spank them. Anger can come from fear. It’s such an important moment, so take a deep breath.”
Statistics show a more than 80 percent chance that the perpetrator will be an acquaintance, and the attack may have occurred in a familiar place or home.
“You can’t underestimate the power of not wanting to believe this,” said Lonsway, who noted that such denial creates rationalizations that shift blame to the victim.
As several people noted, an observer may think, “I know him (the perpetrator), and he would never molest a child,” or “She just regrets sleeping with him,” or “She was asking for it by dressing provocatively.”
The campaign aims to clarify that violence does not happen because of what someone is wearing, how much alcohol was consumed, or because of previous sexual involvement with a perpetrator.
As Lonsway put it, “Rape happens because someone decides to rape someone else.”