Rape is the most under-reported violent crime—just 37 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police. That staggering stat led Real Woman to find out why. The investigation unearthed many of the systemic challenges victims face and what we can do to help loved ones facing seemingly impossible options.

In the early morning of August 11, 2008, Marie Adler, an 18-year-old from Lynnwood, Wash., was bound and brutally raped in her bedroom by a stranger who had broken into her apartment. She reported the crime to the police, submitted to an examination at the hospital, and told her story again and again to authorities.

And then she was victimized a second time—this time by the system. Growing up in foster care, moving from family to family, Marie had experienced many traumas in her young life. She still had a close relationship with her two previous foster mothers, both of whom she confided in about the rape. But when her behavior seemed “curious,” the two women grew concerned that maybe Marie was lying. One of the foster mothers tipped the police off about her suspicions, and quickly the investigation turned to whether or not Marie had concocted the whole thing for attention. After an intense interrogation by the police, she said she had lied and was eventually charged with making a false report, publicly outed in the press, and forced to pay a $500 fine and serve a year on probation.

When a serial rapist was caught in 2011 in Colorado, local officers discovered that Marie had, in fact, been his first victim. She had been telling the truth all along.

Marie’s story and the work of the two Colorado detectives, Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot, who solved the case first gained national attention in a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong and published on both the Marshall Project and ProPublica websites. In 2019, Netflix adapted the story for the miniseries Unbelievable.

Marie’s experience, while extreme and horrific, is not unique. Many women cite a major barrier to reporting their assault—be it to the police or simply to friends and family—their credibility. Will people believe them when they say out loud what happened to them? Or worse, will people blame them for the assault? 

Characters in Unbelievable are based on real-life Colorado detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot.

It takes a lot for someone to come forward and to make the decision to put their name out there…Their lives are not going to be easy.

Sarah McMahon

Center on Violence Against Women and Children

Get Help At Capital Health

Phyllis O’Neill RN, MSN FN-CSA, nurse manager of the Emergency Departments at Capital Health, says if more people knew what to expect at the hospital, they might be more likely to go. Here, O’Neill explains the process.

You get private, personalized care. “When a victim of sexual assault comes into the hospital, he or she is escorted to a private room. We call nurses with specific training in treating victims of sexual assault to come to
the hospital.”

We ask permission before we do anything. “We ask for consent to take a statement, perform an exam, and take specimens. If the patient permits it, nurses open a rape kit and take pictures and swabs in various areas, depending on the nature of the attack. The rape kit is sealed in front of the patient as well, creating a chain of evidence should the patient decide to press charges.”

Pressing charges is not required. If a patient doesn’t want to talk to the police, that’s OK, says O’Neill. They can still do the rape kit, which the county keeps for 5 years. “Our nurses are trained to talk to the patient about all the options, and it’s truly up to them to decide next steps.”

Will I Be Believed?

Secondary victimization is a term that experts use to describe what some victims face when they report their sexual assault to police. It implies another layer of trauma inflicted on them when their cases are handled poorly or improperly by the authorities.

“The unfortunate reality is the past and the current are still very much the same as it relates to the challenges that victims face,” says Tom Tremblay, former chief of police in Burlington, Vt., and former Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety. Tremblay’s experience investigating crimes involving sexual violence dates back to the 1980s, and since 2011, he has been training and advising police, prosecutors, victim advocates, higher education, the military and the private sector on how to better handle sexual assault and domestic violence cases. “We know this is the most underreported crime that there is. And it’s underreported for a number of reasons: What you hear from victims and survivors the most is that they don’t think they’ll be believed, and they don’t think they’ll be supported. And the process of reporting or even telling somebody can cause a lot of harm. Oftentimes victims are met by family, friends, or even society, with disbelief, with blame. Victims of sexual assault are blamed more than any other victim of any other crime. As a society we have to ask ourselves why are victims of sexual assault treated differently than other crime victims?”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, and only 37 percent of sexual assaults are reported to police.

The Lynnwood case is emblematic of one of the biggest misconceptions of victims of sexual violence: that they are supposed to act a certain way. “There is often misunder-standing and confusion by society when victim reactions during, and following, the crime are counterintuitive,” Tremblay explains, “Why didnt the victim fight, scream, run away, why didn’t the victim report immediately.      

Experts have discovered that during moments of extreme stress, humans can undergo “tonic immobility,” a state of paralysis that can prevent them from moving, screaming, or fighting back. Gaps in memory, normal with trauma, can make it hard for victims to recount what happened, and inconsistencies in their accounts can make it look like they are lying.

That women lie about sexual violence is a pernicious rape myth that makes it challenging for victims to be heard.  But statistics have disproved this argument time and again. Studies show that false rape reports can range anywhere between 2 and 10 percent, no different than any other crime.

And national attention to articles like Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” only adds fuel to the myth. The 2014 piece accused the University of Virginia in Charlottesville of mishandling the group sexual assault of a student, but was later recanted after the subject admitted to making some of the information up.

But if the Me Too movement has shown us anything, it’s that coming forward is fraught with potential land mines, whether reporting an act of sexual violence or workplace sexual harassment. “As someone who has worked with survivors, it takes a lot for a person to come forward and to make the decision to put their name out there [when they report rape]. We’ve heard stories about people who come forward, and they receive death threats,” says Sarah McMahon, associate director at Rutgers University’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children. “Their lives are not going to be easy. For someone to go through the process and telling their stories is hard. And there is not a lot that they are likely to gain.”

Alicia Banner* understands this more than most. In her freshman year of college, in 1998, a boy she had been flirting with all semester broke into her room early one morning after a party where both had been drinking, and Banner awoke to him on top of her, trying to undress her. Fortunately, her roommate had stayed in the dorm for the weekend, heard the commotion and was able to fight the intruder off. Banner did what you are supposed to do in these situations, reporting it to campus police and administration. The police investigator, she said, was cold, asking her things like, “Were you drinking? What did you wear? Did you give him any reason to believe you had invited him into your room?”

Even more traumatic, Banner recalls, is that “everyone in the dorm was in the hallway listening.” The next day was worse, she says, because the school didn’t remove the boy from the dorm—she kept seeing him when she was eating meals and hanging out on the porch.

When two other girls reported similar incidents with the same student who attacked Banner, the administration finally took action. Each of the girls was individually questioned alone by a panel of three men and a woman—“I didn’t even know who the people on the panel were,” Banner says. It felt like it was 2 or 3 hours of intense and personal questioning, she says. Eventually, he was expelled. Her classmates fell into one of two camps—those who were supportive and those who thought she was making too big a deal of it. She lost friendships because of it. Authorities tried to talk her out of pressing charges, Banner recalls.

As Tremblay puts it: “Look at what women have experienced, and look at what all victims of sexual assault have experienced when they come forward. Why would anybody want to do that [if it weren’t true]?”

When you look at the case examples like the Lynnwood case highlighted in Unbelievable, Colorado solved the Mark Patrick O’Leary case by focusing on offender behaviors.

Tom Tremblay

Vermont Department of Public Safety

A New Approach

A better understanding of how the brain responds to trauma has shifted how police are now handling cases of sexual violence, with experts like Tremblay leading the charge in training those in the criminal justice system. “The truth is this: We’ve made more progress on sexual assault reforms in the last 5 to 7 years than we did in the 25 years before. And that has been the result of victims and survivors who have come forward and said, ‘your approaches have not been helpful. In fact, they’ve been harmful.’

“The delayed reporting, the inability to fight run the scream, fragmented memory, and inability to provide a narrative or sequence of events can all be connected to some of the research that we’ve done about what’s happening in the brain and in the body during a traumatic event,” Tremblay explains. “Memories of trauma are different than normal vacation memories.”

Tremblay’s consulting focuses on training that is trauma-informed, which centers on three core concepts in handling sexual violence cases: victim-centered, trauma-informed, and offender-focused. “Victim-centered means that victims should be at the forefront of the decisions about what’s going to be best for them in this process, given the amount of trauma that they may or may not have experienced,” Tremblay explains.

“Trauma-informed means that we recognize the impact of trauma from sexual violence and the very high degree of trauma that victims of sexual assault experience,” he continues. “We recognize and understand the neurobiology of trauma—in other words, what’s happening in the brain, in the body.” Trust, he says, is critical. “Before we asked victims a single question about the crime, we have to help develop trust, we have to help them feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally safe, to want to even re-experience their trauma.” Historically, law enforcement had been trained to respond quickly to a crime and ask a lot of questions—what happened next, and after that? Research, according to Tremblay, has shown that this line of questioning can be harmful to victims and not helpful to the case. Instead, a comfortable, private space should be created for the victim and the amount of time spent with them should be limited during the initial interview—sleep and time can help in the recovery of traumatic memories.

“When you look at the case examples like the Lynnwood case highlighted in [Unbelievable], it boils down to this: Colorado solved the Mark Patrick O’Leary case by focusing on the offender behaviors. Lynnwood focused their investigative efforts on the victim behaviors, which, to them, didn’t make sense. And as a result, Colorado made the arrest.”

The response from law enforcement, Tremblay says, has been extremely positive. Anecdotally, he says, he finds most law enforcement get between 2 and 4 hours of training on cases involving sexual violence at the police academy, “and these are the most complex crimes that we respond to,” he says. “The most common response I get from veteran law enforcement officers, either during the middle of the training or at the end of the training is this comment: ‘Everything you just said you put into context makes perfect sense. Why didn’t we have this training 10 years ago?’”

The answer, he says, is that they’ve finally connected the investigation with the science, which has allowed them to design new approaches to how they treat victims of sexual violence and how they investigate the case.

But training police forces and prosecutors is only half the battles. Why Tremblay says that departments and agencies that undergo this type of training often see that more cases are brought to court, we are still seeing juries convict struggling to convict. “Again, this goes back to that potential for societal bias and lack of understanding about [sexual violence] because we don’t talk about it very much,” he says.

But some communities are working to change this social bias and start a dialogue around the difficult topic. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation in October 2019 launched a unique public awareness campaign called “Yes, This Room” across the state to educate the residents about the facts, biases, myths, and misconceptions about sexual assault. “Through [Kansas Sexual Assault Kit Initiative], we became keenly aware of how infrequently sexual perpetrators are held accountable for the crimes they commit and how often they go on to commit other acts of violence,” Katie Whisman, KBI executive officer and Kansas SAKI project director, said in a statement. “We quickly realized that increasing offender accountability also required involvement of the public, and the idea for a statewide public awareness campaign was born.” The program is part of a larger initiative to complete a statewide inventory, with 100 percent voluntary law enforcement participation, of 2,200 previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits—the first initiative of its kind of any state.

“I think that’s really the next the next phase of this, you know,” Tremblay says, referring to educating the public to reverse societal biases of sexual violence and its victims. “We’re creating a higher level of understanding with police and prosecutors. Now, we’ve got to make sure that we take this conversation to our society as a whole and create a higher level of awareness and understanding about the realities of sexual assault.”

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