Debunking myths about sexual assault

"Oh, no!" the woman exclaimed as she retrieved the mail from her post office box. "Jury duty," she explained to the post office patrons who had turned their heads in alarm at her initial outburst. Their concern rapidly turned to understanding, as was exemplified by their nods, smiles and comments.

So, why is it that so many of our fellow citizens feel disdain when confronted by their duty to participate in this system of justice? Well, for one thing, most of us have busy lives. Many of us do not feel a connection to the criminal justice system. After all, is this not a system for criminals and not "normal people"? And justice? Justice for who? The victim? Yeah, right!

Often our fellow citizens show contempt for our system of justice, stating that the criminals have all the rights, so why bother? We "bother" because it is our duty. We "bother" because we know that our system is one that is based on fairness and we would want to have this level of fairness applied to us and our loved ones if we were a victim or accused of a crime.

In sexual assault cases, however, there seems to be a disconnect. Crimes of sexual violence continue to be misunderstood. Rape myths continue to shift the blame for the assault from rapist to victim, even though significant research has disproved this outdated mythology.

In a criminal case, the goal of jury selection is to select a jury that can be fair to both sides and render a verdict based on the facts and the law. In a case of sexual violence, there exist additional goals. Preparing a jury for use of graphic terminology and evidence as well as uncovering rape myth acceptance is necessary during jury selection. Unfortunately, preconceived ideas that exist in the public mindset make this task more difficult.

Studies based on statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice conclusively support the fact that most rapists are not strangers, and stereotyping rapists as such is erroneous and dangerous. Rape is an act of violence where sex is used as the weapon to gain power and control. It is not about sex. Sexual violence is never the victim's fault, although victim-blaming is common and often presents a barrier to justice and offender accountability. No means no and the inability to say no does not mean yes. And, juries need to understand that while rape is a violent act, most victims do not sustain non-genital physical injuries, another myth that may lead a juror to believe the sex was consensual as no evidence of resistance exists.

We know that most rape victims delay reporting to law enforcement, or never report at all. In fact, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, and male victims are least likely to report, although males represent approximately 10 percent of all victims. This delay in reporting raises issues of victim credibility, which in turn is often the primary issue in sexual assault prosecutions.

There exists a mistaken belief that most rape allegations are false; however, reliable research indicates only 2-8 percent of reports are falsified. Victims experience a wide range of emotional response, each coping in their own way. Some may exhibit calmness or hysteria, laughter or anger, apathy or shock. Many are likely to suffer from depression, PTSD, or substance abuse. There is also an increased rate of suicide contemplation.

Following trauma, a person may have memories of the entire incident however fragmented memories are common and normal responses and should not be automatically considered untruths.

A traumatic event can exceed a person's ability to cope and disrupts emotional and mental functioning. Dissociation, a psychological defense mechanism may occur to enable the individual to "escape" the stressful memory. This may help explain why so few victims report and does not mean one is crazy. It is simply a coping mechanism used to address ones shattered sense of safety, trust and invulnerability.

For more information, or if you or someone you know needs help, please contact RENEW at 955-4886 or call the 24 hour hotline at 565-2100.

Joanne Denner is the Sexual Assault Response Team coordinator for the 22nd Judicial District. She is a registered nurse and worked in Critical Care for nearly two decades at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla. She has been a registered murse for over 30 years and also has a degree in criminology from the University of South Florida. In addition, Joanne has worked as a probation officer and a public health nurse. Denner has combined her education and experience and received advanced training as a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) and is a member of the SANE team at Mercy Medical Center in Durango.

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