Correcting misconceptions about sexual violence

Sexual violence continues to make headlines. Public outrage and attention to misconceptions about sexual assault create an opportunity to have important public policy conversations.

This session, lawmakers are addressing several policy issues pertaining to sexual violence including: how to address and prevent campus sexual assault, how to ensure equal access to civil restraining orders for all victims of sexual assault, and if residency restrictions for sex offenders provides the community safety we desire.

When looking at public policy solutions, it is important to keep in mind the following:

Not all victims of sexual assault report the crime to the police.

Survivors say they do not report sexual assaults out of shame and blame from family and/or friends, fear of the offender or the offender’s family, or not having their complaint taken seriously or being believed by those in positions of authority, including the police.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), for every 100 rapes, 40 are reported to police, 10 lead to an arrest, 8 get prosecuted, 4 lead to a felony conviction, and only 3 rapists will ever spend a single day in prison. We must do a better job of improving the response to victims if we expect them to enter and remain involved in the criminal justice system.

Risk reduction and prevention are two different things.

Most discussions on preventing sexual assault focus on how women can ward off an attack, i.e. covering a drink or using the buddy system. Although important to know, these are techniques designed to reduce risk — they don’t stop someone from offending.

The responsibility for these crimes lies solely with the offenders, never the victim. Placing the focus entirely on women and what they can do to “prevent” an assault lends itself to victim blaming. Programs and training about “rape culture” and the prevention of sexual assault should focus on the offender and offending behavior. Such programs in schools and among professionals can challenge victim-blaming attitudes and hold offenders accountable.

Sexual offenders use familiarity to disarm, coerce and manipulate their victims.

The majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows but has not been intimate with. Currently only sexual assault victims who are or were in a domestic or dating relationship with their perpetrator can obtain a civil restraining order, leaving many victims without protection and in fear. This gap in our laws needs to be changed.

Child sexual abuse victims are also more likely to know their offender. When prosecuted, these individuals are supervised through specialized sex offender management and treatment units, which carefully consider housing as a condition of release, particularly for offenders who pose a risk to children.

Although well intended, one-size-fits-all residency restrictions have actually been known to reduce public safety by prompting some sex offenders to stop registering, driving them underground, where probation and parole cannot monitor them.

Improving policies while investing in educational programs and quality services for survivors will help Connecticut move forward in effectively addressing and preventing sexual violence.

West Hartford resident Jillian Gilchrest, MSW, is director of public policy & communication for Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (CONNSACS).

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