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Stories | 10.15.18

Education About Sexual Assault to Bring About Social Change

Janna A. Henning, J.D., Psy.D., Coordinator for the Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.): Traumatic Stress Psychology emphasis, shares her thoughts and provides information and facts from published studies to help educate and shift the dialogue about sexual assault—to create change.

Dear students, colleagues, and friends,

In light of the Kavanaugh situation, I want to offer encouragement and support while we do our best as current and future mental health care professionals, survivors and allies for survivors, and human beings to try to make sense of the events that have been occurring in the political arena, the information that has come out, and the private and public reactions to it all.

Those of us who are survivors ourselves may be feeling anxious, fearful, numb, exhausted, angry, and hopeless. But I don’t feel that I have the luxury of shutting down, pulling back, or giving up, for two reasons: 1) I have specialized clinical and research-based knowledge about sexual assault, and I need to share it in the hope that a better-educated nation will better understand sexual assault, work to prevent future assaults, and assist survivors, and, 2) as Noam Chomsky said, “Unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

I believe that we can bring about change for the better, and I have seen it happen at many levels in the last few weeks. We need to keep fighting, or change will never come about. For me, this refusal to accept things as they have always been and give up fighting is the only thing that pulls me out of despair and hopelessness, every time.

So, I have personally spent much of my time in the last few weeks providing information and education to other professionals, friends, acquaintances, and the general public concerning the prevalence of, reactions to, and outcomes following sexual assault. I’d like to share with you some of that information, which might be useful for you with respect to dispelling myths and validating the experiences of survivors, and invite you to use it in your own efforts to educate others and bring about change, one conversation at a time. I’d also like to welcome you to get in touch with me if you want to talk about how this has been impacting you; I believe that we can get through it and prevail if we support each other in the difficult but rewarding work we’re doing.

Here are some facts from published studies about sexual assaults. I will provide copies of these studies to anyone who asks me for them.

Sexual assault during adulthood (age 16 and older) has been reported in large studies as having been experienced by 25% – 53.7% of women in the U.S. general population (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2000). About 15% of men report having experienced a sexual assault, but the actual number is probably higher because men are even less likely to report an assault than women. Other studies state that more than 300,000 women are sexually assaulted each year (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000), and in the U.S., someone is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes.

In the U.S., 61% of all rapes occur before age 18, and 29% of forcible rapes occur before age 11 (Acierno, Resnick, Kilpatrick, Saunders, & Best, 1999). Childhood sexual abuse has been reported in 17-33% of women and in >15% of men in the general population (Cloitre, Cohen, Han, & Edelman, 2001). Most (62%-78%) attacks on women are committed by someone known to the victim (Acierno, Resnick, Kilpatrick, Saunders, & Best, 1999; RAINN). Most assaults occur at or near the victim’s home (55%), or at the home of a friend, relative, or acquaintance (12%) (Planty, Langton, Krebs, Berzofsky, & Smiley-McDonald, 2013). Out of every 1,000 rapes that occur, only 310 are ever reported to the police, only 57 reports lead to an arrest, only 11 cases are referred to prosecutors, only 7 cases lead to a conviction, and only 6 convicted perpetrators are ever incarcerated. Many of the victims who don’t report the crime said that they didn’t do so because they feared retaliation, they believed that they wouldn’t be believed, or the police wouldn’t do anything about it (RAINN).

Published studies indicate that among the 30% or so of cases that are ever reported, only 2-7% are later determined to be false or unfounded allegations (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010).

Finally, I’ve been reminding my friends and acquaintances, particularly those who identify as male, to please be aware that whenever you are in a room with women, it’s likely that some of them are survivors. Think about what you’re saying about the Kavanaugh situation, and how it will impact the women (and potentially, also, the men) around you. Think about how the people in your life might be feeling about all of this, and remember that, just because they never told YOU about it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to them. Try to remember that at least 25% of us are likely having flashbacks and nightmares in these past few weeks, even if the attack happened decades ago. But also, try to remember that through these small actions you can help support survivors and change our culture for the better.

In solidarity,
~Dr. Henning

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