Life after rape
Sexual-assault response teams are transforming the post-traumatic experience, but public education is still lagging
Once every 54 minutes, another Californian, usually a woman, is raped, according to the state office of the attorney general. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that a rape occurs once every six minutes on average.
And, contrary to popular perception, the overwhelming majority of sexual-assault victims—75 percent—know their attacker, the DOJ reports.
Yet the myth—that a particular rape wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the woman being in the “wrong” location, at the wrong time, while wearing the wrong clothes—persists. It is a scenario that sets up a cycle of shame, blame and, too often, justice deferred or denied. The FBI reports that only one out of 10 sexual assaults is reported to law enforcement.
“What society buys into is the mindset you see in the jury room,” said Lanette Robles of Sacramento’s Women Escaping A Violent Environment (WEAVE). “And that influences the kinds of cases the district attorney chooses to prosecute. Put another way: ‘I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but will the jury buy it?’”
If the district attorney doesn’t think so, it reinforces the societal myth that some arbitrary choice—such as whether to drink or wear a fashionably short skirt—influenced the rapist’s decision to rape.
That myth is addressed in “You Are Not Alone,” WEAVE’s information and resource guide for survivors of sexual assault:
MYTH: It could never happen to me.
“I just remember thinking over and over … How could this have happened to me? It’s not supposed to happen to people like me. I always thought I could take care of myself.”
REALITY: The reason it can happen to anyone is because it’s not about you. It’s about the rapist. He didn’t do it because of who you are, he did it because he wanted to rape someone and you were there.
Victims’ advocates, along with supporters in the medical and criminal-justice fields, will attempt to break these myths during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which begins in April.
“It’s about fear,” Robles said, referring again to juries and, specifically, women jurors. “It’s easier for a woman juror to look at the victim and find some reason to blame her than it is to admit that this could just as easily happen to them. So, they say, ‘Well, she was drinking, and I wouldn’t be drinking in that setting,’ or something else to set themselves apart. Believing in myths makes us feel safer.”
As manager of WEAVE’s Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) advocates, Robles spends a fair amount of time each month going over the basics of rape-crisis counseling, such as the idea that submission isn’t consent (to combat the myth that rape victims who don’t fight back during the assault are at fault) and that only rapists can prevent rape (to counter the argument that there are actions people can take to guarantee that they will never be sexually assaulted).
Unlike the relatively recent shift in attitudes about domestic violence, surprisingly little has changed in the public’s attitudes about sexual assault in the last two decades, many contend.
It wasn’t always that way. Domestic violence also once fell under the category of “none of my business,” or “it’s a family matter.” It is far less tolerated now, and most credit the intensive statewide ad campaign “Break the Silence on Domestic Violence,” launched in 1997, for taking the issue out of the dark and into the workplace, faith community and schools.
B.G. Orey hopes the coming month’s consciousness-raising activities will help the public realize sexual assault affects everyone, not just the victim.
Orey, 70, has the distinction of being the third client seen at WEAVE when it took over rape-crisis services for Sacramento County 16 years ago. She was 54 then and living alone much the way she had grown up—unafraid to walk at night, leaving her windows and doors unlocked and even leaving her front door open if she were just running to the corner store. On October 20, 1988, her small-town sensibilities were shattered when Paul Sailor, then 26, entered her sliding kitchen door, got an ice pick from a drawer, came to her bedroom and beat and raped her. Orey fought back, and Sailor eventually fled her home, after which he was caught by one of Orey’s neighbors and arrested by police.
Sailor was sentenced February 2, 1989, to 24 years in state prison and was paroled October 20, 2001, to Tulare County after serving 85 percent of his term.
“Unless you’ve been through it, it’s absolutely impossible to understand what it feels like to be invaded like that,” Orey said, recently. “But I don’t call myself a victim anymore. I’m a survivor.
“My definition of rape … it takes your heart, your soul, your body,” Orey continued. “But at some point, you have to start to heal. WEAVE is an excellent place, a safe place, to do that.”
For the last 13 years, Orey has volunteered for WEAVE’s 24-hour crisis line and recently joined its speakers bureau.
“One thing I tell people is: You can still be a winner without your attacker ever being convicted or even charged,” Orey added. “Whether you know them or not, whether they’re caught or not, you can still heal.”
It’s a Thursday morning, and Judy Jolley’s rolling carry-on luggage bag is packed and standing at the ready in her Midtown Sacramento home. Its contents—new sweat pants, T-shirts, underwear and socks; an assortment of dry snack items and juice drinks; and a couple of stuffed animals—never changes from week to week.
Jolley is one of 30 trained advocates who respond to the University of California, Davis, Medical Center (UCDMC) whenever a sexual-assault victim is brought in for an evidentiary exam following an attack. The bag she carries is but one of her tools.
“We bring the victim clean clothes and underwear, because theirs often have to be taken as evidence,” Jolley explained. “We bring a stuffed animal because it’s just reassuring. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone turn it down.”
The former registered nurse got involved with SART after going back to school in 1997 and interning at the Women’s Resource Center at California State University, Sacramento. There, she heard about WEAVE and its many services for victims of both sexual assault and domestic violence and decided to take the 64-hour crisis-line training. Later, after an additional 48 hours of training, she became a SART advocate. Unlike crisis-line workers who are volunteers, SART advocates are compensated $25 per 12-hour shift if they don’t get called out and $15 per hour, plus the base $25, if they answer a call. WEAVE staffs its SART unit with 30 advocates, providing round-the-clock coverage, year-round.
After three years as an advocate, Jolley readily attests that this work has become her passion.
“People ask, ‘Why would you even want to be involved?’ and I always say, ‘It’s a privilege.’ It’s a privilege to be in someone’s life and give something of yourself to them during a time that is so horrible. I mean, you don’t do it for the money,” she said.
Dr. Bill Green, a clinical professor of emergency medicine and medical director of the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) team at UCDMC, said the way things were done prior to SART’s implementation in 1989 was “terrible.”
“No one was being well-served,” said Green. “Not the victim and not the criminal-justice system.”
According to Green, when a victim arrives in the emergency room, two sets of needs are triggered: (1) the victim’s need for emotional support and preventive treatment against sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy; and (2) the needs of the criminal-justice system, which include careful documentation of assault history and any injuries or findings, evidence collection (blood, semen, hair and fibers), and ultimately testimony in court by the forensic examiner to discuss those findings.
The old system, Green said, was a “nightmare scenario” in which victims would endure eight- to 10-hour waits to be examined, forced to sit in overflowing waiting rooms with the rest of the population, where emergency-room physicians with little to no training in conducting forensic evidentiary exams would just “muddle through” while having little understanding of the emotional trauma the rape victim was experiencing.
“There’s unique trauma [for] sexual-assault victims,” Green explained. “What juries expect … the popular scenario of a rape victim is someone beaten to a pulp and hysterical. And sometimes that happens. But, more frequently, victims don’t have serious medical injuries, and the way they present, their demeanor can outwardly look pretty normal.
“[It is] the classic example of not judging a book by its cover, because what they look like on the outside doesn’t reflect the severe pain and trauma on the inside.”
As a result, before SART, rape victims coming to a level-one trauma center like UCDMC would be given a low-priority status, thereby triggering an often-lengthy wait. Those who stayed (many did not) were seen by physicians who routinely were interrupted during the exam and pulled back to the floor to handle another emergency.
“Obviously, evidence was going uncollected,” Green said. “The last part of the nightmare was [getting] subpoenaed to come to court to testify as an expert witness on sexual assault, and you quickly find out you’re not an expert—because you’ve had no training—and it’s readily apparent to the jury, as well.”
Green’s first appearance in court, in fact, pointed out just that and formed the foundation for his involvement in and development of both SAFE and SART. Green’s wife, Elaine, a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner, is the senior examiner for SAFE.
Described as a coordinated and comprehensive community response to sexual assault, SART contains five key disciplines: law enforcement, forensic examiners, rape-crisis advocates (WEAVE), the crime laboratory that manages and analyzes evidence, and the district attorney.
Historically, most of those players did not talk to one another much, Green and others said. As a result, the various parties often found themselves working at cross-purposes.
Fifteen years after its inception, SART has made a “huge difference,” Green said. “Not only does everyone involved have a high level of training in this area, but there’s ongoing dialogue about the issues we all face. Everyone’s got a better understanding about what each other’s challenges are, and, really, we’re not only well-trained; we train each other. And I think it serves both the victim and the criminal-justice system very well.”
Instead of sexual-assault victims showing up at various community-hospital emergency rooms, all victims are routed to UCDMC’s facility by law enforcement, ensuring that only trained forensic specialists perform evidentiary exams.
Police officers now radio ahead to let UCDMC emergency-room personnel know they’re transporting a sexual-assault victim, so victims are spared any waiting time in the emergency room. Instead, they are ushered into a special triage area and then into an exam room, where members of the sexual-assault forensic-exam team attend to them until they are discharged.
Additionally, UCDMC calls WEAVE, which sends one of its advocates to meet the victim at the hospital within 45 minutes of receiving the call. (Victims have the right to decline an advocate’s offer to sit with them during the evidentiary exam and police questioning, but most accept, WEAVE reports.)
In 2003, SART advocates responded to 427 sexual-assault victims and 33 of their friends and family members at UCDMC.
Folsom police detective Robert Challoner remembers handling sexual-assault calls before the coordinated response now seen with SART and says the experience was bad for both the victim and the officers involved.
“You can imagine how the victim felt,” Challoner said. “A male officer, wearing a gun belt, coming in right after an assault and asking all these very personal, highly sensitive questions. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone.”
Challoner credits SART’s coordinated approach with making things easier on the victim, as well as increasing the likelihood that the offender will be caught.
“The advocate helps smooth things out,” he added. “It’s a better way of doing business.”
For Jolley, the last three years as a SART advocate have been fulfilling on a number of levels.
“There was a lot of domestic violence in our family, growing up, and my sister kind of carried the burdens of that … and ended up taking her own life in 1989. In some way, it feels like I’m able to give something back, in her name,” she said.
The 60-year-old Jolley is no stranger to seeing the aftereffects of abuse, having served 13 years as the head nurse for the Sacramento Children’s Home, a long-term care facility for abused kids.
But rather than burn out or become enmeshed in the pain, Jolley said her work allows her to see courage displayed on a regular basis—courage she contends turns victims into survivors.
“You know how they say that if you want to learn about living, spend some time with someone who’s dying?” Jolley said. “Well, if you want to learn about courage, you go work with rape victims. I feel honored I can do this.”
WEAVE’s 24-hour crisis line is at (916) 920-2952. For a list of services as well as community events during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit www.weaveinc.org.