Supporting survivors of sexual assault: a conversation kit Wednesday, April 27, 2022 | Sacramento, CA In the spring of 2019, CapRadio received an email from a Sacramento-area woman who had reported a rape to local law enforcement one year prior. She told us the officer she talked to made her feel blamed and dismissed, and that the trauma from that interaction continued to disrupt her healing. As far as she knew, her case was never investigated and no arrests were made. CapRadio spent nearly two years reporting on sexual assault in Sacramento County, and found that her case was not an outlier. In the Sacramento area and other cities across the U.S., most sexual assault cases don’t lead to arrests, much less convictions. And the majority of survivors never report the crime because they blame themselves, fear the police or don’t believe the case will go anywhere. We also found that survivors often don’t know their options in the immediate aftermath of an attack, feel in the dark about the steps and timeline of a sexual assault investigation and often feel ostracized by loved ones when they reach out for help. Change starts with conversation. That’s why we’ve created this Conversation Kit, designed to help you talk with others about sexual violence and its impacts. The kit contains audio clips from After the Assault, CapRadio’s podcast about survivors and their journeys to justice and healing. The podcast lays out the challenges survivors face in the days, months and years following an attack, and during police investigations. It was created in collaboration with a “cohort” of eight survivors who met regularly with CapRadio to share their stories, ask questions and offer solutions. The cohort members are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They’re Black, white, multiracial, Latina and Asian American. They’re all cis-gendered women, but people all over the gender and sexual orientation spectrums experience sexual violence. We are grateful for their courage and partnership. Thank you, Aurora, Erin, Jesa, Laura, Maddie, Monica and Penny. This kit is organized by topic and features audio clips and transcripts from the podcast. You’ll hear the voices of survivors, advocates, researchers, educators, psychologists, law enforcement, forensic specialists and doctors. It’s written for anyone who works with or cares for survivors and is designed to be used in community presentations, law enforcement trainings, rape crisis center workshops and counseling sessions. But you can use it to start conversations with friends, family and colleagues too. You can also visit the After the Assault project page where you’ll find podcast episodes, companion articles and a guide to reporting sexual assault, as well as a glossary of terms for survivors of sexual violence. If you or someone you know needs help after a sexual assault, you can get free, confidential support 24/7 by contacting the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or via their secure online chat system. In Sacramento County, you can contact WEAVE, Sacramento’s rape crisis center, 24-hour support line at 916-920-2952. We hope this kit contributes to raising awareness about sexual asault and how we can all help survivors find justice and healing. Special thanks to Brittany Bray, Director of Outreach & Education at WEAVE and Dr. Alexa D. Sardina, Assistant Professor at CSU Sacramento’s Division of Criminal Justice, for providing feedback to help shape this conversation kit. Sammy Caiola, After the Assault lead reporter Emily Zentner, After the Assault data reporter jesikah maria ross, After the Assault project director Mark Jones, Audio Producer Megan Manata, Digital Producer Table Of Contents Getting started Sexual assault: The basics Why some survivors don’t report Believing survivors Trauma and memory Law enforcement as a second trauma. Gathering evidence: Exams and rape kits Long-term effects Being an ally A way forward Getting started Take a look at the topics in this conversation kit and consider which you’d like to present or discuss with your group. Then listen to audio clips and decide which you’d like to play to get the conversation going. You can use the discussion questions below or create your own. If you want to bring in additional expertise, you can invite a guest speaker to help introduce the topic and why it’s important, and to answer questions that come up (here is a list of Sacramento area support organizations you can contact). If you’ll be playing the clips for a group larger than 5 people, you’ll probably want to use a pair of plug-in speakers. Before your gathering Every conversation is different. You’ll want to consider: How will this conversation support your (or your organization’s) goals? Who are you inviting and what topics are they interested in? What language or “trigger warnings” might you use to prepare people for the content you will be sharing so they are not surprised or harmed? Do you need to have a counselor on hand to provide additional support if needed? How much time do you have for the conversation? Are there local experts you’d like to have participate? Do you want to provide any takeaway resources? Can you host this conversation as part of an organizational or community meeting? Hosting the conversation Hearing and discussing stories about sexual assault can generate a range of opinions, experiences and emotions. To create a space where everyone feels comfortable, you may want to establish some ground rules. Here are some examples, but feel free to work with the group to create your own. Show mutual respect and kindness. We are here to make our community a better and healthier place for everyone. Use the “one mic” approach, which means when one person is talking, give them your attention by not interrupting. Listen attentively. Don’t debate, correct or embellish someone else’s experience. Remember healing is a journey that everyone approaches differently and on their own timeline. Commit to keeping what’s said in the room confidential to encourage honest discussion. Questions to explore What stood out to you about the story we just heard? What themes came up in those stories? What else did you notice? What did you hear in those stories that resonated for you? How do those stories relate to the experiences you or your friends have had? If you were/are healing from sexual assault, who would/do you talk to? What could they do to best support you? What knowledge or skills do police/doctors/advocates need to help survivors who are struggling? Where can they go to get these resources? What are some misconceptions you hear about sexual assault in your community? Do you think sexual assault is a personal or a community problem? Why? How might your community change the way people talk and think about sexual violence? Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio Sexual Assault: The Basics One in five women are survivors of completed or attempted rape. The numbers are higher for women of color and transgender people. Only 20% of rapes are committed by a stranger, according to the Rape and Incest National Network. Nearly three quarters are committed by an acquaintance or a current or former partner. A smaller number are committed by a relative or someone the survivor can’t remember. In California, any sexual or sexualized behavior that makes a person feel uncomfortable, intimidated, threatened or frightened can be considered a form of sexual assault. That includes rape, which is penetration by any part of the perpetrator’s body or any object, and sexual battery, which is when someone is touched against their will for sexual gratification, as well as many other crimes. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Sexual assault survivors Annie, Jesa, Penny and Laura WEAVE CEO Beth Hassett What is a crime? Advocates say many people don’t know what actually qualifies as a sexual assault, and that deters them from reporting. This can result in perpetrators being able to repeatedly commit acts of sexual violence. Listen / download audio Sammy: Many survivors blame themselves, especially if there were drugs and alcohol involved, or if it happened with somebody that they knew. And that also makes them hesitant to speak up. Beth Hassett runs Sacramento’s rape crisis center — it’s called WEAVE. They offer mental health services, safe housing and other supports to survivors of sexual violence. Beth: Our society blames them so people don't report. We lose a lot of potential cases or at least information about who the perpetrators are because people don't report kind of the lesser incidents. Every report builds a case and these are not one-offs. I mean, that's where society thinks it's like sex gone bad or something, consensual sex gone bad. People who rape people are repeatedly raping people and they are looking for victims. And if victim number one doesn't report and victim number two doesn't report, they're just moving on along and getting away with it. Sammy: When I started reporting this project, one of the very first things I did was look up the penal codes for rape and sexual assault in California. I was really surprised by how many acts are actually considered reportable crimes. For example, ANY forced sexual penetration with any part of the body or an object can be legally considered rape. Sexual battery covers a whole bunch of other crimes that don’t involve penetration. Non-consensual oral copulation is sexual assault. But still, there’s this tendency to brush it off as ‘not a big deal.’ The immediate aftermath Survivors told us that they didn’t know what to do right after they were assaulted, and that they struggled to find information on next steps. Listen / download audio This is survivor Annie Walker — she reported an assault to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department two and a half years ago. Annie: You know what to do if the power goes out. You know, you have your backup generator. You have things ready because it's something you've experienced before. I mean, most people don't walk around in life expecting this to happen. So you don't really know what to do. Sammy: So we’re laying out some of the basics here and digging into definitions that survivors told us were overwhelming when they were in the midst of it. We also worked with law enforcement and sexual assault advocates to create a full guide to reporting this crime. you can find it at CapRadio.Org/After. Sammy: Let’s start first with step one for those who choose to report: contacting law enforcement. You can start this process a few different ways. If you’re in immediate danger, you should call 9-1-1. If you’re in a safe place, you can call the police non-emergency line or you can call your local rape crisis center. The staff there can talk you through your options, including how to make a report. If you’re injured, you should go to a hospital or other medical facility and they can help connect you to the police after you’ve been treated. Once you decide to report, you will eventually sit down with a police officer. Victim or survivor? A sexual assault is a major trauma that can change someone’s life and sense of self in drastic ways. The language we use to describe people who have experienced sexual assault can help make them feel seen and supported. The women CapRadio interviewed had a wide range of thoughts on terminology. Listen / download audio Sammy: Do you prefer to be referred to as a victim or a survivor, or both? Jesa: I think I referred to myself as victim one time and just in reference, in a text to a friend, I did not like how it felt, but it still felt appropriate. But for me now survivor feels more appropriate and that’s the only term that I use now for myself. Penny: I think of myself as both a victim and a survivor at the same time. It’s almost like I can’t be a survivor without having been a victim, and so those two things come together for me at the same time Laura: I like to use the term survivor because it strengthens me as a person, when I call myself a survivor as opposed to a victim Annie: I don’t like using the word victim, but it’s definitely what I feel like at this point. There’s days when I feel, I feel both often. So I can’t say I feel one. I’m on the path to becoming a survivor. I feel in the process, I feel like a victim right now, but maybe next week I won’t feel that way. Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio Why some survivors don’t report About three quarters of all rapes and sexual assaults in the U.S. went unreported in 2018, according to the latest data from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Service providers who work with assault victims say that has a lot to do with victims blaming themselves for what happened, or being afraid that loved ones won’t believe them. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivors Erin Monica and Penny End Violence Against Women International Start By Believing Liaison Alison Jones-Lockwood A complicated process Survivors told CapRadio that they hesitated to speak up because they thought the process for investigating rape would be complicated, time-consuming and retraumatizing. Listen / download audio Erin: But even telling someone, it's like. You have that thing in your head that's just like they don't believe me or, you know, there's no point. Monica: I just felt so ostracized and banished, because some people didn’t want to face the truth of it. Penny: It's not just being believed. It's being accepted as you are after being assaulted. And wherever it is that you are in that process. Sammy: The survivors I’ve talked to said that these feelings also made it harder for them to seek out mental health help and take other steps toward healing. They said that the lack of support from friends and family discouraged them from going to the police. There is a culture of disbelief that is pervasive in America. We see it in the media, pop culture and politics — and in law enforcement. When somebody says that they’ve been raped, there is a tendency to cast doubt. And that applies to the police, too. Alison: It is hands down treated much differently than every other case that law enforcement make it. Alison Jones-Lockwood of End Violence Against Women International says this has to do with misconceptions about this type of crime. Alison: And it goes back to the myths and the stereotypes of sexual assault. The myth that the attack has to be violent, that it has to be committed by a stranger, that the victim needs to fight back, that the victim should be a good victim. And when we have survivors who are outside of the stereotype or outside of that expectation, then we get a little confused. Distrusting police For survivors from communities that have historically been mistreated by police, such as transgender survivors, undocumented survivors, sex workers and survivors of color, going to law enforcement may not seem like a safe option. They may worry that they’ll face harm or even be arrested themselves if they try to report the crime. For every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not report, according to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community. Listen / download audio Penny: It just so deeply destroyed my sense of safety that I had. The way that I’d thought about the world is sort of ‘there are bad people and bad things happen sometimes, and then there’s someone to help and there’s a safe place to go to.’ And once the police had blown me off and told me it was my fault that I was raped, I felt like there was nowhere that I could go to be safe. I developed a fear of the police after that happened. And so every time I saw a police car or a police officer I would have a panic attack, because it was so traumatic for me. Penny: If you’ve seen on the news the police hurting African American people who have done nothing wrong, why would you go to the police and tell them that you’ve been raped? It might be that they dismiss you or ignore you. It might be that they accuse you of having done something wrong. Maybe something even worse happens to you when you go to the police. It’s a huge risk as an African American person to put yourself in a situation where you’re around the police. Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio Believing survivors Many survivors are afraid that if they talk about being raped, the person they’re telling won’t believe them. Advocates say that has a lot to do with the way society talks about sexual violence in pop culture and in the news, and that we can all do our part to end what many refer to as “rape culture.” You can find more information about how to talk about sexual assault and what actions you can take to support survivors here. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivors Aurora, Annie, Maddie and Monica WEAVE CEO Beth Hassett End Violence Against Women International Start By Believing Liason Alison Jones-Lockwood International Association of Chiefs of Police Program Manager Dave Thomas Survivor shame Many survivors say they feel a sense of shame or guilt around the assault, which can make it difficult for them to speak about it. Advocates say that self-blame is more likely if a victim is raped by someone they know, or if there were drugs and alcohol involved. Listen / download audio Aurora: I think my shame came from not speaking up sooner, personally. I think a lot of us feel that, feeling like I was isolated and then not having that like, that trust with anyone close enough to me where I could tell them about what happened. Annie: I mean the shame for me comes from feeling manipulated into a situation. And then we live in a society where people want to judge the victim because maybe they’ve put themselves in a vulnerable situation when they don’t even know all the facts Aurora: It’s that shame still, it’s like we invented it Maddie: We’re very good at that. Aurora: What is that about? Maddie: It’s that expectation of ‘you should protect yourself, you’re a woman, you should know better.’ Sammy: A lot of survivors told us that when they started talking about what happened to them, their friends and family were kind of at a loss. Monica, who asked that we not use her full name, says she was raped a little over four years ago. She says when she tried to tell people there wasn’t a lot of support. Monica: It’s a very complex tough situation because me as the victim and the survivor, I needed and still do need help. And I’ve understood that some people do not know how to handle hearing things like that. People may shut down or not know what to say or distance yourself from you. Sammy: She says she thought about going to the police, but people around her discouraged that. Monica: Everyone just wanted me just to sit down, shut up and be quiet. Sammy: And she says that there were also people who criticized her for NOT speaking up. And on top of that, she figured the chances of the police investigating her case were pretty low because she had already taken a shower and washed off some of the evidence. Monica: I never went to the police. When I would see on a movie and somebody getting raped, they immediately took a shower. And I would, me as a viewer, an outsider, say like what the fuck why did you take a shower? There’s all the evidence there, what are you doing? So it happened to me, and what did I do? I fucking went in the shower, sat on the floor, curled in a ball and just cried. Because I just wanted to be clean again. You know? And it’s like, how do you, how do you wash your insides? And I’m not even talking about your physical parts, it’s like how do you wash that from your heart and your soul? How to react Advocates say whether you’re a police officer, a nurse or a family member, it’s crucial you tell a survivor you believe them. Listen / download audio Sammy: That’s why the first person a survivor talks to plays such an important role here. Beth Hassett and other advocates I talked to say most people go straight to a friend or a loved one. If you are that trusted person, there is something you can do to help and support survivors. Again, there is very likely a survivor who you are close to in your life. Alison Jones-Lockwood from End Violence Against Women International says there are THREE things that you should tell a survivor if they disclose an assault to you. Alison: The first is, I’m sorry this happened to you. The second thing is how can I help you? And the third is I believe you. We know that those three things are the most important thing that the survivor needs to hear because a lot of times loved ones want to fix the problem. They want to solve it, they want to take all the pain away or they want to take over almost so that the survivor doesn’t have to worry. But, we need to have the survivor drive the process. Police perceptions Law enforcement officers may have preconceived notions about rape that make them less likely to believe assault survivors than victims of other crimes. Listen / download audio Sammy: I talked to Dave Thomas with the International Association of Chiefs of Police about this. He’s not affiliated with any of the survivors I spoke to, or their cases, but his organization provides in-depth training programs to help teach law enforcement agencies how to handle sexual assaults. Dave: Every other crime we start by believing. When I responded to other types of crime, when I responded to burglaries or whatever, I never went in thinking, “these individuals are probably lying.” Sammy: But Thomas says the outcome of a sexual assault case so often hinges on how the officer taking that initial report perceives the victim, and what she says. Dave: Whereas so many times with so many officers, because of bias, there’s this automatic default, you know, that it’s a false report. Or they look at a victim and because they’re wearing certain clothes, because they have tattoos, because they work in the sex industry, well it’s probably a false report. Like, this individual can’t be sexually assaulted. And it has to do with, without even doing any type of investigation. Trauma and memory Everyone’s brain responds to trauma differently. Some survivors told us they could remember every detail of the assault, while others said their memories were blurred or out of order. Cognitive scientists are trying to find out more about how the human brain records memory during traumatic events, including rape, and how that affects someone’s ability to retrieve those memories later. Advocates for rape victims say if law enforcement officers understood more about the neuroscience of trauma, they would be more understanding of survivors who struggle to remember the details of an assault. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivors Annie, Monica, Aurora and Penny Harvard Medical School psychologist Jim Hopper Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview instructor Carrie Hull A Mindfull Place educator Marianne Candela WEAVE victim advocate Jessica Garcia Trouble with recall Psychological trauma experts say rape survivors often find it hard to recall certain details of the incidents. This can stem from not taking in those details in the first place, those details fading from memory, or the brain having problems with retrieving them. Listen / download audio Sammy: Survivors can be retraumatized if they report the crime to law enforcement and get hit with a barrage of detailed questions that they don’t know how to answer. I’ve been talking to a group of eight sexual assault survivors and they helped us shape this project. I asked them what it was like when an officer or a friend started pressing them for details, like what was the perpetrator wearing? Annie: I remember I just kept saying I don't know, I don't know, I don't know or I mean, I think I might have said, like, I don't know, blue jeans maybe. Monica: Your mind will try to protect yourself as like a self-defense mechanism and block out certain things just because it wants you to survive and make it and not be overwhelmed. And you don't always have control over that. Aurora: Just trying to, like, give them what they want, which is just answers. But it's like I don't have the answers. I'm looking for them myself. Sammy: The science is clear. These memory issues are common among assault survivors. It’s been documented in dozens of studies over the past two decades. And it’s not just rape that impacts the human brain in these ways, it’s all kinds of traumatic events like combat, or child abuse, or a car crash. If a survivor doesn’t know how normal this is, they might blame themselves for missing details or memory lapses. And that feeling can disrupt the healing process for months and years after the attack. And if police officers and detectives don’t understand that trauma can dramatically affect a survivor’s brain, their interview techniques might not draw out the information that they need to fully investigate a sexual assault. Sammy: This episode, we’ll look at the way our brains record details when we’re in a traumatic event and how law enforcement can use science to gather better information from sexual assault victims without harming them further. We’ll be hearing a lot from Jim Hopper — he’s a Harvard University psychologist and a national expert on trauma and the brain. He’s not connected to any of the survivors we interviewed, but he’s often called in to explain to judges and juries why someone who’s been sexually assaulted may legitimately struggle to recall what happened. Jim: We would never question the credibility of a soldier, based on whether they can remember the exact sequence of those mortars coming in and which one, you know, blew off their friend’s leg versus, you know, which blew off that guy’s arm. You know, would we question their credibility? Of course not. Would we expect them to remember everything in great detail? No. But yet every day in courtrooms around the country we attack and question the credibility of victims of sexual assault for having the same kind of memories that soldiers have for their combat experiences. Fight, flight or freeze Whether a survivor can recall certain details after a sexual assault depends a lot on the state they were in during the attack. Our brain might respond by trying to escape, trying to fight, or freezing up–which is a common response. These responses can affect how well someone remembers the details of the situation later on. Listen / download audio Survivor Annie Walker describes her mental state the night of her assault. Annie: It was like this out of body experience. I was like over myself. I felt , like, paralyzed. Like I couldn’t even feel, like my limbs. Sammy: Psychologist Jim Hopper says this can happen to any of us when we’re overcome with stress or fear that impairs the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of our brain in charge of complex thinking and decision-making, also known as “executive functions.” Instead, the brain’s “defense circuitry” takes over. Jim: And that's what people are running on, whether it's combat, sexual assault or anything else. And when police understand that, then they have a lot more openness to why that woman didn't fight or yell, why she, you know, was like a deer in a headlights. Not because she's an idiot, but because the really intelligent parts of her brain were turned off and she was stuck on an ineffective habit response ‘cause she didn't have the executive functions to shift to a new response. Sammy: So, you’re scared, you’re extremely stressed and your brain is switching gears. So it’s not about rational thought anymore. And at the same time, your body is having this physical experience. But your awareness may be split off from what’s happening in your body — like what Annie described. You might only be taking in bits and pieces of what’s happening. It’s called “dissociation,” and Hopper says it affects memory. Jim: And so people may describe, you know, feeling like they were floating or like they were in a movie, or a dream, and literally not experiencing the sensations and emotions that are arising in their body from that assault. In the same way, when they're being interviewed later by an investigator or someone else, they, umm, may not have access to those emotions that were associated with the event.” Sammy: Annie was in a situation where she felt threatened. Her body froze up, and her dissociative state prevented some parts of the assault from getting encoded in the first place. Later, those fragments that she did hold onto took longer to recall. Memory challenges For many survivors, memories come back in bits and pieces. These memories are not necessarily in order. This can be frustrating and confusing for survivors, especially if new details arise after they’ve already given an initial report to law enforcement. Survivor Annie Walker says she initially remembered very little about her assault. Listen / download audio That night, she says she couldn’t talk to her husband about what happened. And when she woke up the next morning, she was really confused. Annie: I mean, I remember waking up in the bedroom in there, and like, there was like this huge bruise all over my arm. And I had bruises all over my body and... I. But my I, I literally had no idea, like, what had happened. And, for days, I was trying to put the pieces together. Sammy: Over the next few days, details and images of that night started to come back. Events that had originally been blurry or missing came into focus. She remembered being bent over face-down, and his hands moving under her pants and shirt. One week after the attack, she decided to report it to the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department. She says deputies came to her house to take the report. Three days after making that report, she says a new vivid memory popped up: the person she says raped her had a weapon. Annie: And I knew that there was a gun at my neck, at my back, like it was just clear, and I wanted to make sure that the authorities knew. Sammy: So she called her detective to add that piece of information. But she says the detective was skeptical. Annie: Yeah I felt like I was just extremely, like, cross examined on the phone. Like, ‘why didn't you remember a gun? That's like a really important thing’ and, like, I couldn't explain why I couldn't remember. Sammy: Hopper says Annie was having trouble with retrieval. Her brain had recorded and stored the information about the gun, but she wasn’t able to remember it right away because her mind had disassociated itself from some parts of the attack. A reminder here: Hopper says stress – including the stress of being interviewed by a detective about the worst experience of your life – can impair recall. He says in order to retrieve certain information, sexual assault victims need the right context. That can be a state of mind, a question from a friend or a detective, seeing something that reminds you about the attack, or another memory that serves as a “cue.” But there is another important element here: it’s actually the way our memories are recorded. He points to research on how our brains take in two types of details: central and peripheral. Jim Central details that are getting attention and have emotional significance attached to them, versus peripheral details that we're not really paying attention to, or not attaching much significance to, that differential encoding is greatly amplified in the midst of a stressful or traumatic experience.” Sammy: The central details — the ones that captured attention and evoked emotions in the moment — those tend to be stored more reliably, and for longer. And even if you have that out-of-body experience, your brain is probably still storing some of those central details. So for Annie, the gun was central. It was burned into her brain, she just couldn’t access it in the immediate aftermath of the assault. And other details like somebody had for dinner might never come back, or they might come back scrambled. Those facts probably didn’t seem important at the time, even though they could turn out to be vital to an investigation. Annie was confused about a lot of those little details. Like what the perpetrator was wearing Annie: I remember I just kept saying, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know or I mean, I think I might have said, like, I don't know, blue jeans, maybe, like I just felt, like, I almost felt like I had to, like, say something. Sammy: Hopper says it’s common for survivors who are questioned right after the incident to not be able to remember this sort of thing. But even though the science shows very clearly that this happens to survivors, Hopper says there isn’t a widespread understanding of trauma’s impact on the brain, especially among law enforcement when it comes to sexual assault. Jim: There's a real danger when investigators are asking people for information that was never encoded or has been lost in the meantime, that they can, you know, stress out the victim, leave them feeling misunderstood, incompetent, not wanting to further engage with the investigation. Or, even worse, they could be creating inconsistencies and basically false pieces of memory. Annie: I had no idea. I've never experienced anything the way, like, things have come back to me, the way that they had with the assault. Like people, I imagine there's so many women or victims I should say, that truly feel and believe, like, maybe they're crazy, or if other people are like, “how come you didn't remember that?” They go, oh yeah, I guess I should have remembered that, you know, like, it's. It's, yeah, I think people just need to be educated, especially victims, when they go through something, like, they need to feel, like, the way that... the way that things are happening in their mind is, like normal for them I guess, you know. A new way to conduct police interviews Jim Hopper, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and other experts say that changing the way interview questions are phrased can help survivors recall details more easily, and that it’s also a good idea to tell survivors directly that it’s normal to not remember everything. Listen / download audio Sammy: Dave Thomas is with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which provides best practice guides for law enforcement. Dave: Most of our questioning is linear. What happened from the beginning to the end. And that's not the way somebody who's been traumatized, that's not the way their memory is laid down. And what we realized is we have to ask questions in a way that that individual is able to provide information based on the experience that they've had. Sammy: You heard Annie’s struggle with memory, but she isn’t alone. So many of the survivors that I talked to for this podcast told me they didn’t remember the details of what happened to them until weeks or months later. They couldn’t remember the sequence in which those details occurred. And those who reported to law enforcement said they felt chastised when they couldn’t recall the facts or the order of events. Carrie Hull helps teach officers how to interview people who have been through trauma. She is a former detective with the Ashland, Oregon Police Department. She says the typical process for reporting a crime just isn’t tailored for survivors of assault. Carrie: You know, the expectation is someone is supposed to come in, sit down, they're supposed to be ready to talk. They're supposed to know what to talk about. They're going to tell you what happened to them from the beginning through the middle and then the end. That is a very traditional understanding of both just humans and then also memory and recall. And what we've developed with study over the years is to be a lot more understanding and adaptable as a practitioner versus putting those expectations on the participant. Creating a safe space helps with memory Bringing survivors into a comfortable space can lower their stress levels and make them feel cared for, which may help them remember more details about the assault. So can having a rape crisis center advocate on hand to support victims as they interact with police. Some police departments have installed “soft interview rooms,” which are furnished to resemble a home setting rather than an interrogation room. But not every department offers these rooms or has an advocate as part of their team. Listen / download audio Sammy: Some of the survivors I talked to had to give their reports in traditional interview rooms. Marianne Candela told me about when she reported an assault on her college campus 13 years ago. Marianne: They brought me into an interrogation room. There was two chairs. One lightbulb. It was dark, it was cold. And there was a certain kind of metallic smell to the place. Sammy: I talked to a survivor named Penny. She asked that we not use her full name and that we alter her voice. She says when she was interviewed, it was in a small square room with beige walls. She described it as ‘cold’ and ‘uninviting.’ Penny: You know the room contributed to the overall feeling that I was a suspect in a case, and she was trying to get the information out of me ... I can’t even imagine what it would have been like if they had given me a space to be in that felt welcoming, where I didn’t feel like maybe they were going to restrain me. Sammy: So, soft interview rooms can really help make this a better experience for survivors. So can having a WEAVE advocate. That’s a counselor from Sacramento’s rape crisis center who’s on hand to provide support to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Jessica Garcia is the embedded advocate for the Elk Grove Police Department. She’s been there for seven years. She says making sure the survivor is relaxed is a big part of the job. Jessica: Well you know, we make sure that there's breaks, that there’s food, that there's water, that they are comfortable even in the soft room, you know. Is this an OK place for us to talk? And then it's just again, it’s kind of a, starts a general conversation to where the victim is feeling OK to share. And then there comes the questions that obviously the detective needs to have answered, but in a more delicate, conversational manner. Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio Law enforcement as a second trauma Sexual violence researchers use the term “retraumatization” to describe the harm survivors can experience from the negative responses they experience after seeking help from police, health care professionals or others. A 2008 Michigan State University study found that as a result of contact with the legal system, 87% of survivors felt bad about themselves, 71% felt depressed, 53% felt distrustful of others and 80% were less likely to seek other help. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivors Penny, Jesa, Aurora and Erin WEAVE CEO Beth Hassett Rocklin Police Department Lieutenant Adrian Passadore Former Sacramento Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Michelle Hendricks Feeling disbelieved and dismissed The way an officer talks to a survivor during the initial report-taking session can affect the way the survivor feels about the entire criminal justice process, and even sway survivors away from participating at all. Listen / download audio If you listened to Episode 1, you heard from a survivor who we call Penny. She emailed us a year after making a report to tell us how dismissed and degraded she felt at the Sacramento Police Department. She asked that we alter her voice and not use her full name, for safety reasons. Penny: He didn't take me seriously. He didn't really ask me any questions. I remember saying to him it started out as consensual, but he didn't ask me any questions about when it became nonconsensual. The officer also told me “some people like it rough.” And I think that was the worst thing for me to hear, that that was... it's like it didn't matter what my experience was, because if there's a man who likes it rough, then that's his prerogative. Sammy: Law enforcement agencies told me that the way this first conversation goes depends a lot on the demeanor of the officer taking the report. They say they try to hire people who will be empathetic and that they do get training in the police academy about how to treat assault victims. But advocates say it’s not enough. Beth Hassett runs Sacramento’s rape crisis center. It’s called WEAVE. She says police need MORE training to be able to handle these cases sensitively so survivors don’t walk away feeling like Penny did. Beth: They have to gather the data and the information and they can do it in a less traumatizing and judgmental way, you know, so. And it really comes down to that officer and what their level of compassion is and bedside manner, frankly. And I just know a lot of times they're very green rookies who are picking these victims up. And that to me, that's the worst case scenario, because they’re uncomfortable with the situation, they’re uncomfortable even talking about it, and they’re having to ask these really personal and intimate questions that are challenging. Long process, little information When sexual assault investigations go forward, they can take months. There are many steps to the investigation, from interviewing suspects and witnesses to collecting evidence to asking victims for additional information. Some survivors told us that they often waited for months between calls from their detectives, which made them feel frustrated and forgotten about. Listen / download audio Sammy: So far we’ve walked you through two reports: Penny’s, and Jesa’s. Penny’s case hit an almost immediate dead end after what she describes as a damaging experience with a patrol officer. But Jesa — who you heard from at the beginning of this episode — got a little bit further into the maze of the criminal justice system. Her case was handed off to a detective, and she heard back from that detective pretty promptly. She spent ten months working with detectives at the police department Jesa: It's been like a second job. Sammy: I’m trying to put myself in Jesa’s shoes here. We all know that familiar feeling of waiting for an email to come in. Imagine constantly checking your phone or your inbox for an update on your case. Maybe while you’re working full-time or trying to raise a child. It’s a constant pull at your attention. It’s this low-level stress about the status of your case. And for a lot of survivors, that sense of feeling powerless makes it hard for them to work through the trauma. Here’s Jesa again. Jesa: When I think about it I get really, really frustrated. Having to deal with every step of the way, having to call the sergeant and making it very clear it wasn’t a priority, and then having to call the detective when it finally got the case assigned. And they were kind of condescending each time when they’d explain stuff and I just kind of pushed through and said OK, this is what I’m explaining. Every time I’d just try to have to let go of that conversation and just the next step, it’s just forward. I’m not dwelling on this stuff. But then you stop after, you know, It’s been over a year now since they told me they weren’t really going to do anything with the case and it’s going to just sit there. All this stuff that I did, everything they wanted, I did it. I worked so hard. And it went nowhere. It is infuriating. Aurora: Be prepared for your detective to just not call you. Make sure that you contact or follow up with your detective. They may not reach out to you. They’re busy on multiple cases. It’s like you’re not a priority to them. Sammy: In one of our group recording sessions, Aurora Jimenez talked about the lack of communication when she reported a rape to Sacramento police five-and-a-half years ago. She says that she never heard back from a detective. Aurora: Why is there no follow up with a detective like you promised? Why? Why would you hand us some fucking card and say, OK, we'll contact you. And then not contact us? Like, why? What is the point? Are you really trying to make us feel worse? That's what it felt like. It's like, oh, so now you're gonna also break a promise from the one institution that's taught, that we're taught we can rely on. Erin: You have to reach out and you have to do this and I had to message him on Instagram and was going back and forth with emails with her like, and nothing happened. Sammy: That’s Erin Price-Dickson, she reported a rape in 2018 and participated in an investigation for about a year. Erin: I guess what I was expecting, even if they couldn't move forward or were at a phase where they're waiting on something, I would have liked that communication given to me versus me reaching out after not hearing from somebody for weeks or months about my case. I would have just liked a better form of communication. Even if you're just messaging me or calling me to let me know, like, “hey Erin, you know, we are still working on your case. It is still open. But this is the stage we're at right now. So I just wanted to give you a heads up.”I guess that would have made me feel more at ease and just comfort knowing that versus just not knowing anything at all. Lasting effects A survivor describes how her negative interactions with police officers had lasting effects. Listen / download audio Penny: It just so deeply destroyed my sense of safety that I had. The way that I’d thought about the world is sort of ‘there are bad people and bad things happen sometimes, and then there’s someone to help and there’s a safe place to go to.’ And once the police had blown me off and told me it was my fault that I was raped, I felt like there was nowhere that I could go to be safe. I developed a fear of the police after that happened. And so every time I saw a police car or a police officer I would have a panic attack, because it was so traumatic for me. Sammy: Penny says reporting her assault was difficult at every step. First, she called the Sacramento Police’s non-emergency line and asked for a VAWA exam — it stands for Violence Against Women Act — but there was some confusion. Sammy: Then she had to figure out where she could go to give her statement. Sammy: And when she finally got to the police station, she says the officer who took her report made her feel blamed and dismissed. Penny never heard back from a detective about her case. Penny: I don’t even have the words to describe really what it is like when the police tell you that you weren’t raped-slash-it was your fault. It was just simply devastating for me. How advocates can help Staying up-to-date on a case and communicating with law enforcement can be exhausting for survivors. Sometimes advocates from rape crisis centers are stationed in police departments so they can be physically present during conversations with officers. Survivors have the legal right to have an advocate with them at any point in the process. Advocates can be the liaison between the survivor and the detectives working the investigation. Listen / download audio Sammy: Detectives and sergeants we talked to say they try to keep victims updated. In Elk Grove, that’s a suburb of Sacramento, the Police Department is starting to use a new program. It let’s them text updates to crime victims during an investigation. It also has a survey function so officers can get input on how the victim feels the interaction went. But there is a lot of variation in how departments handle this. When I talked to Michelle Hendricks for this story, she was running the Sacramento Sheriff’s department’s sex and elder abuse bureau.. She retired in May 2020. Michelle: There is no hard and fast rule. I mean, I have some detectives who talk to victims every day. Some, you know, technology has allowed them to text. They can email, phone call, leave messages. Some victims don't want to be contacted. They're like, don't bother me. Just call me when you need to tell me something. Sammy: And there are some things that law enforcement says they can’t tell victims, because it could compromise the investigation. Here’s Adrian Passadore, a lieutenant with the Rocklin Police Department. It’s in a suburb of Sacramento. Adrian: I think a lot of officers want to be impartial and fact finders. So, you know, I don't know if maybe in doing that they don't keep people, like, abreast of what's going on enough because they're worried about compromising their investigation. Officers worry if you're in too much contact with someone, you might tell them things that you shouldn't. Sammy: This is where WEAVE advocates can help. These are counselors who are trained to be the liaison between the survivor and the law enforcement agency. These advocates understand the ways in which the investigative process can make survivors feel trapped in their trauma. Advocate Jesse Garcia is stationed at the Elk Grove Police Department. Jessica: Telling your story over and over and not being believed, kind of getting lost in the big scope of things where negotiating that is extremely difficult because then it reflects on like self blame, like, why isn't my case handled that way or why didn't my offender get arrested? And so it can create a lot of that. Um, and then communication, right? I think just letting the victim know what any update in status is and keeping them plugged in the best way to the extent that I can and to the detective can. Sammy: For the last few years the Sacramento Police Department and the Sacramento Sheriff’s department didn’t have sexual assault advocates embedded at their stations, but both agencies recently received grants and have hired them on. Statewide, there’s a push for more collaboration between police agencies and rape crisis centers. This could help survivors feel informed, supported and cared for, even if their cases don’t move forward. And that’s important, because most of these cases don’t move forward. Beth Hassett with WEAVE says the stage after the investigation is where a lot of cases stop short. Beth: What I see more often is it either doesn't end up going to the DA's office, which is very frustrating and disappointing to a victim, or it goes to the DA's office and the DA chooses not to file it. Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio Gathering evidence: exams and rape kits Most people don’t have an understanding of what kind of evidence is required to move a case forward, and how long it might take officers to gather that evidence. Survivors have the right to a post-assault forensic examination, also called an evidentiary exam. The findings from these exams are part of what’s called a sexual assault evidence collection kit, and sometimes referred to as a rape kit. How helpful this forensic evidence is to detectives depends a lot on how many viable DNA samples are in the kit, and whether the DNA in the samples matches up with someone who is already registered in the national law enforcement suspect database In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivors Erin, Penny, Jesa and Dominique Sacramento County District Attorney Crime Lab criminalist Megan Wood WEAVE CEO Beth Hassett Sutter Health BEAR Program supervising physician Dr. Angie Vickers East Carolina University Associate Director of Intercultural Affairs Ashley Cleland End Violence Against Women International CEO Joanne Archambault A Mindfull Place educator Marianne Candela Evidentiary exams There are some steps survivors can take in the immediate aftermath of an assault to help preserve more evidence, such as making a report quickly and refraining from taking a shower. Listen / download audio An evidentiary exam can yield a lot of evidence or just a little. And getting a kit with enough DNA to identify a perpetrator is really, really important to the investigation and prosecution of a sexual assault case. I asked Megan Wood at the Sacramento County District Attorney Crime Lab what makes a good sample. Megan: So if, for instance, there's a medical report and the victim indicates that ejaculation happened on her back. That's a fantastic sample because that's not going to yield a lot of her DNA, such as a vaginal swab, has a lot of the victim's own DNA and it can also have the suspect DNA. But if you have ejaculation on a body surface, I know that that is a prime DNA sample and I'm going to choose that type of swab every single time Sammy: So only certain types of samples are going to yield a high concentration of DNA. And on top of that, every hour that passes, the DNA in sperm, saliva, blood and discharge becomes harder to detect. Most science supports doing an evidentiary exam only if the victim reports within five days of the incident. Many survivors wait past the window. Maybe they don’t think to report right away, because they don’t immediately see what happened to them as a crime. They might be in shock immediately following an assault, or too depressed or fearful to make a phone call. Beth Hassett runs WEAVE, it’s Sacramento’s rape crisis center. It’s often the first point of contact for assault survivors. Beth: Please report as soon as you can. You know, every minute you don't report, we're losing evidence. And juries watch way too much Law & Order and CSI, and you know they want swimming sperm inside her in order to decide that there was actually an assault, and that's not usually the case. Sammy: In addition to reporting an assault as soon as possible, there are some steps that a survivor can take to make it more likely that forensic examiners can collect strong evidence. Showering and bathing can wash away DNA evidence. So can washing the clothes or the bedding from the incident. So if someone can avoid doing those things until evidence has been documented, that can help. But Hassett says even if a survivor does shower and does wash those items, they should still report and get an exam if it’s been five or fewer days since the assault. Many survivors just don’t know what to do in the hours after an attack. Erin Price-Dickson says she immediately took a shower after she was raped by an acquaintance, late at night, in his home. Erin: So I got in and I tried to clean myself. Well, I cleaned myself but I didn't feel clean. And then I was just, I was just crying the whole time and I just sat down in the shower. So, I just was sitting in the shower, like, letting the water run on me. And I was crying and then like, I had to like, tell myself, like, “OK Erin.” And like, “get up. You need to get over to Aliyah’s house.” I was like, “get up, like, get up.” So I had to keep telling myself, “get up.” Um, I finally was like, OK, so I got myself up, you know, got myself dressed, and drove over to her house. Sammy: After Erin slept and ate something, the friend insisted they call the police. It was morning by then. She says the officers didn’t arrive at her friend’s house until later that afternoon. Here’s Erin’s description of her interaction with the police officer. She mentions a BEAR exam — BEAR is the name of the clinic where evidentiary exams take place for assaults in Sacramento County. Erin: He asked me if I wanted to do the BEAR exam. And that's when I told him, like, yeah, I mean, I'll go and do that. I told him, you know, I did tell them I showered and they were like, oh, you know, um, we'll, we’ll see if they can get anything with that. But usually you don't want to shower. And I was like, well, I didn't, I mean, I didn't know that. And he was like, you know, it's OK. We'll still see what they can get, or whatever. Exam experiences An evidentiary exam can be uncomfortable for survivors. Survivors should be given information about the exam in advance and told that they can have a support person, such as a loved one or an advocate from the rape crisis center, with them during the exam. Listen / download audio Exams can only be conducted at special clinics staffed by highly trained examiner teams. I checked with the Association of California Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners, and there are just 48 teams trained to do this for California’s 58 counties. Larger counties can have two exam centers, but some counties don’t even have their own. For example, the BEAR clinic in Sacramento also handles all the exams for neighboring Yolo County. So if you have to take an exam, you’ll likely be taken to another facility where exams are held. An exam typically lasts about two hours. It’s conducted by a sexual assault nurse examiner or a sexual assault forensic examiner. These are people who undergo a ton of training to be able to do this. Angie Vickers oversees the BEAR clinic, which is where these exams take place in Sacramento. She says they do about 400 exams a year. It starts with taking a medical history, and getting the basics of the incident. Angie: And the next part will be going through the whole medical exam which is very meticulous, looking over the whole body to see if there’s any injuries, photographing any injuries, using the blue light which helps identify secretions on the body. And then the last part of the exam would be doing the pelvic exam, which most of the women who come in for an evidence exam have had a pelvic exam done before, but recognizing that once you’ve been assaulted and just having it just have happened, this pelvic exam may be much more difficult to go through. Sammy: Erin was one of eight survivors that CapRadio worked with to help shape this project. We call them the survivor cohort. Here’s Erin telling them about her experience: Erin: It made me, like, very uncomfortable. First of all, the BEAR exam is just very uncomfortable in general. Like, off top. It’s right after your assault, and then they’re opening you up and they’re swabbing you. I did have a WEAVE advocate there. So I… that’s what helped me feel a little bit more comfortable with what was going on, because I did have a WEAVE advocate there, um, when I got there. Sammy: Erin does remember something specific that bothered her. She’s African American, and she says the nurse who examined her had trouble identifying her injuries. Erin: First, she took the photos because I was trying to explain to her... because I could tell, like where I had bruising, but I don't necessarily show bruising like that. So, like, I could just, you know, if you touch it, you're like, oh, that kind of hurts and you know it's a bruise. But mine didn't show like the discoloration necessarily yet. There were some parts that did. So I was trying to show her on my arm. So she was like, oh, and she was like “I'll take a picture anyway.” And then on my legs, I was trying to show her some bruising. There was some that did end up showing so she took those pictures. Sammy: Research shows this sometimes happens for survivors of color getting exams. A University of Pennsylvania study of 120 survivors found that forensic nurse examiners weren’t able to detect injuries in women with dark skin as easily as women with light skin. When this happens, it means less evidence is logged in a Black or brown survivor’s kit, and that lessens the chances that their case moves through the system. Rape kit processing Even when evidence is collected, it’s not always processed in a timely manner or at all. Listen / download audio Collecting DNA from a victim starts with an evidentiary exam — that’s a special medical exam used to collect samples from the survivor’s body, hair and clothes. Those samples then go into a rape kit. The kit is a box, filled with envelopes, vials and instructions for the crime lab. It might contain clothing, samples of bodily fluid, hairs, fibers, stuff like that. Then the kit gets processed, and the DNA gets entered into a database with the DNA of other suspects from other crimes. These kits can make or break an investigation. But they’re difficult to collect. The exam can be really hard on the victim, and the samples don’t always get processed — there are at least 14 thousand untested rape kits in police departments and crime labs across California. Ashley Cleland directs the Women and Gender Office at East Carolina University. She says the evidence collection process can have profound impacts on a survivor’s mental well-being. Ashley: Getting a rape kit done is a very invasive procedure, and in my experience working with survivors, the vast majority of folks that report their sexual assault or go to the hospital to get a rape kit done, are not doing it for them. They’re doing it so that someone else won’t have to experience what they’ve experienced. And so, when we don’t honor the sacrifice that they’ve made by doing that, it also creates this distrust of the legal system, it creates this distrust of the police as not being an avenue that promotes healing, but puts you through more trauma to then not get a result. Rape kit results Even when a survivor receives results from an evidentiary examination, or rape kit, the answer isn’t always satisfying. Experts say evidence from an exam is only one step in the much bigger picture of the investigation. Law enforcement officers should be thoroughly exploring every angle of a case and communicating with survivors along the way, advocates say. Listen / download audio Erin Price-Dickson says examiners told her that the rape kit didn’t yield any evidence. And it pissed her off, because according to what she said on her police report, she was penetrated at least 30 times. Erin: It should’ve showed something because they actually swab inside of you. So I was very frustrated by the fact that they were like “oh there’s nothing, it doesn’t even show that you’ve even had sex,” you know, so I, I don’t know. Sammy: And Erin says she didn’t even know the status of her case until she requested her investigative file for this project. Which gets to a critique that I’ve heard from some experts make about the push to end the rape kit backlog. Joanne Archambault with End Violence Against Women International says it is a good thing to test the kits, but it doesn’t solve thsi bigger issue with sexual assault cases. Joanne: They're doing this mass testing, but you really have to be careful to fund the investigators, right. And so if you're, you're going back and you're testing all these cases, without having investigators and prosecutors actually looking at those cases and doing something with those cases, I think it's a false promise. Sammy: Erin says as far as she knows, detectives never went to the scene of the assault. We looked at her investigative file. It didn’t indicate that they’d talked to the suspect, or that they’d collected any evidence from his house. Erin: I was hoping, like they would go over there right away and collect everything, because I'm sure, like, there's blood on the, the bed, like so I just for reasons why they didn't. But they got like my clothes and stuff, but they couldn't go over to his house and get anything. I don't know. And he was saying like they had to wait until it was... my case was picked up by the detective. But I'm like thinking, you know, by that time, he could get rid of, get rid of all of that. Sammy: And that’s a prime example of the point that Archambaldt was making: rape kits just don’t tell the whole story. Joanne: It bothers me because I think in some jurisdictions where they’re doing the simplest approach, victims were being told that there's no evidence, and they've never even looked at the clothing, or the bedding, or the condoms, or the totality of the investigation. So again, it's a good first step, but it's not the end step. Sammy: Erin’s case was suspended after a completed investigation. That means there wasn’t enough evidence to make an arrest. She spent months going back and forth with her detective, trying to find answers. But at some point, she says she had to move on for her own healing. Erin: It just wasn’t helping. She wasn’t doing anything with my case. Well that’s how I felt, because again, you know, I don’t know the behind the scenes. She may have a whole separate story, but she can say like “oh yeah I worked really hard on it,” I don’t know. But from, from, my side of things, nothing was being done, and because it was constantly putting me in that space, for myself, I had to make that decision, like, I, I'm not going to reach, continue to be the one to reach out to her because of how it's making me feel. And I'm trying to just get myself to a better space. Sammy: A lot of survivors feel this way after participating in an investigation. The process of collecting evidence is invasive. And it doesn’t always result in action. What’s left is for survivors to find a way to heal in the absence of justice. Still, advocates say the more people who report their crimes and get evidentiary exams, the more likely it is that perpetrators of sexual violence will be caught in the future. How collecting evidence effects survivors The back-and-forth exchanges of an investigation — or a lack of updates from detectives — can be overwhelming for survivors. Listen / download audio Penny: At that time, there was so much I was trying to deal with, trying to get through, you know, going to the police station, trying to get myself through the evidentiary exam, trying to, you know, come home and make dinner for my kid. Jesa: He's like, well, you know, we're trying to build a house out of evidence. And like your emails are, you know, we need a foundation, though, and you really have to build walls of the house and you go on it like I get it. I know. Dominique: I went to the hospital and got everything like tested, and got him to admit it via Snapchat message. I tried to reopen it and that’s when they said that there wasn’t enough evidence from the beginning. Marianne: Data and evidence collection for my reporting became just that. It wasn’t about listening to a survivor tell their story, it wasn’t acknowledging a human being who had suffered a crime. Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio Long-term effects Survivors and experts say sexual assault is a trauma that can affect people for years after it happens. Rape Trauma Syndrome, similar to PTSD, can cause side effects such as hypervigilance, anxiety and depression. Many survivors say they feel pressured to ‘get over’ a sexual assault quickly or not talk about it after a certain period of time. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivors Laura, Annie, Penny, Maddie, Erin, Aurora and Jesa UCI Care Center founder and psychologist Mandy Mount Grieving a former self Survivors often notice significant changes to their personalities and behaviors after a sexual assault. Some say they became quicker to anger, more easily overwhelmed and less interested in things they used to enjoy. Others describe feeling a profound sense of loss of the person they were. Listen / download audio Laura: I think that you lost a part of yourself that you're not going to get back. Annie: I think it feels like you lose, for me, like your whole self. And, you know, yeah, you don't know how to get it back. Like you don't know who you are anymore. So it's like you're grieving. The person that you were. Laura: Like, your entire thought process about how you went about your life almost has to change. The way that you go out, the way you leave the house. Just even being in the grocery store is different. Being more aware of your surroundings and having to reprogram your brain. Penny: Yeah, for me there was a self that I lost that I was never going to get back. There was like a person who was there that was gone. It was like a death and having to grieve that person. And then sort of rebuild a new person. From the ground up, and I'm still in that process. Annie: Yeah, same here. It's like you wonder if that process will ever and or how long it's going to be until you figure out who you are again. Sammy: I asked psychologist Mandy Mount about this. She runs the sexual assault resource center at UC Irvine. Mandy: There's a real shift in worldview that happens for people, which is part of, can be part of what people are experiencing when they talk about losing the self that they felt connected to earlier, right? It's that sense of safety in the world. Safety in their body, safety in their relationships. In part that gets challenged. And there's a sense of loss that goes along with that. There's grief in losing a sense of security. Staying vigilant Experts say it’s normal for survivors to be extremely aware of their surroundings, especially if they're in a setting that reminds them of the traumatic event. It’s a symptom called “hypervigilance.” Survivor Maddie Bernal talks about how this comes up when she goes grocery shopping. Listen / download audio Sammy: Maddie says because of memories related to her assault, being here puts her on edge. Maddie: I am brought back to those memories, which then creates like this hypervigilance. So even just walking in here today, I ended up looking around at people, and I'm like, oh my God, they're all staring at me, like, oh my God, what's going to happen? And I had to step off and go like, OK, chill the fuck out, [laughs], and I texted my husband … like, I'm freaking out for no reason, and it's litterally like I'm looking at one person … is it him? No, that's not him. Is that his mom? No, that's not his mom. OK, that kind of looks like him, but it's not him. It's a constant having to reground myself. , I’m like ‘oh my god they’re all staring at me, oh my god they’re all staring at me. Chill the fuck out. I texted my husband. I’m freaking out for no reason….. I’m looking at one person like, is that him? … it’s a constant having to reground myself. Sammy: While we shopped, I remember Maddie was really off. She kept looking at her shopping list, and she texted her husband. Once in a while she had to pull over the shopping cart in a less busy part of the store so that she could take some breaths. Maddie: Yeah, I’m by myself so I’m getting more worked up than usual. And it’s not even like I’m noticing myself getting worked up, it’s I’m getting worked up and then all of a sudden I’m in the middle of a hot flash and I’m halfway to panic and I’m like OK cool down. To stay calm, she says she usually comes here with her mom, or a friend. Mandy: People who've experienced sexual violence typically become really good at monitoring their environments. And that can be really great to the extent that it assists them in avoiding harmful situations in the future. But where it can become problematic is because it becomes very, very taxing on one's nervous system. It's exhausting to constantly be on high alert and to sense danger everywhere you go. Sammy: Many of the survivors say they struggle with this ... Especially when it comes to possibly seeing their perpetrators around town. Some of them have even changed their habits to make sure that doesn’t happen. Psychologists have a word for that too — it’s called ‘avoidance’, basically staying away from anything that brings up memories of the traumatic event. Erin: I don't like to get in my car and drive and be out in public because I feel like I can't focus. I can't pay attention to what's going on. I can’t enjoy my company. I can't enjoy my friends because I'm constantly looking at the door or looking who's walking by because I don't want to run into who assaulted me. Maddie: There's a whole section of town I don't go in and avoid like the plague. And it's so embarrassing to have to explain to my boss, “I can't work with that client because they live in this part of town.” Well, why won't you go there? Monica: So many times when I worked as a server and there was a time where I was going to have to serve my rapist and I worked in this place and I'm like, I'm not taking that fucking table. Sammy: This is all part of something called Rape Trauma Syndrome. That's not an official diagnosis, but it is a term mental health professionals use to describe symptoms common to survivors of sexual violence. Some of the symptoms are similar to what you might think about for PTSD — like flashbacks, panic attacks, and that hyper-vigilance. Mandy: Negative thoughts about oneself or the world, feelings of detachment, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of depression or sadness, having difficulty generating positive emotions or enjoying activities that were previously pleasurable. It could include things like self-harm, or difficulties with concentration, irritability with others, as well as feelings of guilt or shame. Sammy: And these symptoms can get worse when someone encounters a “trigger.” That’s anything that reminds them of the attack. It can be seeing a person, an object, going to a certain place. Self-blame Some survivors say being sexually assaulted affected their sense of self-worth. Psychologists say people who’ve experienced trauma need healthy coping mechanisms to stave off destructive behavior or beliefs, like self-blame. Survivors shared the ways their habits changed after the rape. Listen / download audio Sammy: Annie Walker says she started overeating ... she stopped exercising ... and she stopped getting dressed up. Annie: I know I don't want to be objectified or desired. I know that's there. And I feel like for most of my life or a lot of my life, I have been, whether that be jobs that I've been in working in bars or things like that. Or just my personality. I just yeah. I just I don't think I want, after what's happened to me, I don't want anyone to look at me in any way and desire me sexually in any way. Sammy: Aurora Jimenez says she felt the same way. Aurora: I mean, I like stopped shaving everything. I like stopped taking care of my body, my physical body. I tried to defeminize myself, if you can't tell. But I really just went the polar opposite of what I naturally gravitate to because I didn't feel comfortable being attractive anymore. Sammy: For Jesa David, it wasn’t about appearance. She started taking more risks in the months after the assault. Jesa: Just not caring enough to take care of myself, like, you know, I'd be out riding my bike like at midnight or whatever. I had a bike accident even. I just didn't even ... I think I sprained my wrist and it just kind of was like, oh, just another thing. And if that happened to me today, be like, oh, God, I injured myself. I need to be more careful. And I just didn't have that attitude for so long. Sammy: Jesa says it took her a few years to figure out why she wasn’t taking care of herself. And it all tied back to her trauma. Jesa: I didn't love myself anymore because of what had been done to me, because that deep devaluing of me, I took it to heart. And I didn't even realize that because it didn't occur to me like because I've never had that before. I've always, you know, I love myself. And it took me a long time to get that back. And it took a long time to feel like I deserved anything good. Sammy: Mount says harmful behaviors often stem from self-blame. And some of that comes from this idea in society that people who are raped did something wrong or could have prevented it by drinking less, or wearing something different … it’s pervasive in America. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, over a third of female rape survivors have contemplated suicide at some point after their assault, and 13% have attempted it. And that’s why we all have to work harder to give survivors support. Mandy: Because they deserve it, because what happened to them was not their fault, because healing is possible and because they deserve to thrive and be supported and receive care. And I think that's so important for people to know. The road to healing Survivors describe where they are in their healing journeys, several years after the assault. Listen / download audio Penny: Healing is so incremental. People say, oh, here's this, you know, here's this healing thing. You know, here's a list of 10 healthy things that you can do and you can do all 10 of them every day, all day for months on end. And that's not where healing is. That's just a drop in the bucket. Aurora: I'm making progress, you know. But it's taken me fucking forever. It's forever. My whole life, you know. And it's still a problem. And I am making progress. But damn, it takes so long. It's just so unfair. Jesa: Acknowledging that this is just, you know, this can always happen. Like a panic attack could happen sometime in the future. I don't know. And it's just I can still live my life and I can still face all those things and and live with getting triggered now and, you know, here and there. And just it doesn't make me any weaker. Healing practices We asked survivors who were a few years out from their assaults how they feel now compared to how they felt right after the incident. They were all at a different place in their healing journeys. This aligns with the how psychologists look at Rape Trauma Syndrome in “phases” as described in this clip. Listen / download audio Sammy: There’s the acute phase, where somebody might be having mood swings or memory issues. Then there's the adjustment phase where they might try to avoid or escape their trauma. Then finally there's this resolution phase, where they start to accept that the rape was part of their lives, and attempt to move forward. Here’s Aurora, and then Jesa. Aurora: It involves meditation, it involves self-love practices, self speaking, honestly telling myself that I'm okay the way I am, just as I am. I didn't deserve any of this. You know, that internal dialog, which apparently some people don't have, but, you know, really giving yourself those pep talks. But take a bath, you know, and like love on yourself. Give yourself a pedicure. Really simple actions that seem almost impossible at the time, but really just like practice self-love on a very practical level. Jesa: And it doesn't even have to be a specific thing. Like yoga I think is great, but it's not for everybody. But taking that time and requiring myself to be someplace for an hour where it's just something for me, it's just something for my body. And yoga classes make sure to point that out. They're like ‘have an intention for this class’. I'm like, I just want to do yoga for an hour, like That's my intention. But it still put it in my head like I'm here giving myself time instead of making myself do something on my to do list or something that'll, you know, be fruitful later. I just have this time where I'm taking care of myself, which was definitely hard for me to do for a while. Being an ally Most survivors don’t report the sexual assault to law enforcement. Some people go their entire life without telling anyone at all. For many, the first person they turn to after a traumatic event is a friend or family member. They may ask for assistance in the immediate aftermath, or for many weeks and months after the incident. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivors Maddie, Monica, Erin, Penny, Annie, Aurora and Laura Alvin, a husband of a survivor End Violence Against Women International Start By Believing Liason Alison Jones-Lockwood Recognize that healing takes time Survivors say there’s a misconception that people can move past a sexual assault, when in reality there’s no “finish line” where someone is completely healed. Listen / download audio Sammy: Survivors told me that loved ones should just try to be patient, and not set expectations. Maddie: Respecting my own timeline, respecting my own timeline of how I need to heal, and not pushing me to do things that they think is good for me. Monica: People were, a lot of them were looking at me like, “you're still feeling this way?” And it's, it's in so many ways, which also has been said to me is when someone says “get over it,” or “it happened a year ago.” And that's not fair. And just respecting your timeline and honoring yourself, however long it takes you to heal. That's your time. Penny: So, like, this kind of assumption that people have, like you're dragging this on unnecessarily. Monica: And then you feel even more guilt, and you feel even more unwanted. And somehow you feel like you're a thorn in somebody's shoes who’s supposed to be your friend or ally or family. Erin: So we don’t want to talk about it. Understanding new habits Survivors said being sexually assaulted changed their social habits, and friends often didn’t understand why they were declining invitations that they would have previously said yes to. Listen / download audio Sammy: A lot of the survivors I interviewed said that being assaulted changed their social habits. Like Erin said, their moods can be up and down. They may not want to do all of the things that they used to enjoy doing. Aurora: You should probably disclaim to your friends like “Hey, I might change my mind. I don't want you to take it personally.” But like, maybe I just don't feel like it that day or I was triggered earlier or whatever. Like we talked about Harvey Weinstein being in the media and literally I turn on Facebook today and first things his face again. And I’m like well, guess I’m staying off the internet today. It affects your whole life in every way. So just be sensitive to people and their healing process. It's not always the same. Annie: That's right. I mean, I think especially in the beginning, it's, it feels like we're all trying to figure out who we are again or like sort of have people coming in that know you as a certain person that you don't feel like you are anymore. It's very difficult to even want to be faced with that. That's been my experience, which is why I feel like I've isolated from a lot of people or I had friends for the first couple months that, you know, “come out, let me come over, let's do this. Let's do that.” And I wasn’t interested because I was trying to, like, just process what had happened to me. And now maybe a year later, I'm ready for them to start coming around or, you know, being more supportive. But I think they have maybe taken it personally because I haven't been as responsive to their invites, you know, in the past. Aurora: Try to imagine what it's like to be invited to a bar when that could have been the potential, you know, precursor to the assault. It's like you guys don't even understand just being in a bar. The smells, you know, like every sensation, even just drinking alcohol, for example, can trigger you and understanding the triggers and not, you know, requiring an explanation, just like, I'm sorry. I don't feel like it. And not feeling bad about it. Being a secondary victim Friends and family of sexual assault survivors can also be affected by the survivor’s trauma. It can be difficult to watch a loved one suffer or to know how to offer the appropriate support. Alvin, the husband of a survivor we interviewed, said he was struggling to understand what happened to his wife and eventually sought counseling through WEAVE, Sacramento’s rape crisis cetner. Listen / download audio Alvin: Go and seek help yourself. Try to understand what she’s going through. But also talk with somebody through your emotions and your fear. Because that’s important. I did it for a while definitely, with WEAVE, and that did help me. I had my own personal issues at the time, too, unrelated to this, and it helped me take a step back and pause. So I would say go talk to somebody for sure. Seek counseling, help and guidance of how to be there for somebody. How to be there for yourself. Sammy: Being a good ally takes work. It takes patience. It takes learning. And Alison Jones-Lockwood with End Violence Against Women International says it can also take a mental health toll. Alison: We think of them as kind of a secondary victim. They could be immersed in that survivor’s trauma, so hearing about it, helping them with it, helping them cope, helping them access resources. So it’s important for our supporters to also be aware of the resources that are available to them when they need to reach out for support. So counseling, crisis lines, thinking of some of the same resources that that very survivor might be using could also benefit that secondary survivor. Supporting survivor healing Survivors and advocates say being a better ally starts with just being there and listening, without judgment. Here are two survivors describing acts of kindness that helped them heal. Listen / download audio Laura: Some good ways that I appreciated, just friends coming over and just sitting with me and you know, not even me having to talk about it. Just having somebody physically present to sit there and help me take my mind off it, just watching movies and hanging out at home. Being in a safe place. Being with me in my safe place. That made me feel good. Penny: One day I really needed to have someone come and be with me, and I couldn’t get anyone to come and be with me. And so my boss drove from Woodland and to come sit with me on my couch while I cried. Marissa Espiritu / CapRadio A way forward The term “rape culture” describes the way our everyday language, pop culture and media representation can condone or perpetuate sexual violence. This can include portrayals that repeat myths about sexual assault, portray survivors as falsifying information or glamorize nonconsensual sex acts. Activists say there is a lot we can do to wake people up to rape culture and encourage them to intervene when they see situations that could result in sexual harm. In the following audio clips, you’ll hear from: Assault survivor Penny Former ValorUS communications manager Carissa Gutierrez WEAVE Prevention and Education Manager Brittany Bray Restorative justice practitioner sujatha baliga Taking action Survivors and advocates say changing the language we use around sex and gender, learning to be more respectful of peoples’ personal space and educating children about consent at a young age can help combat rape culture. Listen / download audio Penny: I think the first thing that needs to happen is that we need to open our minds to that power dynamic and just name it and say that it exists. And then I think once we get really honest with ourselves, all of us, about our participation in that system, then that's when we can change something about it. Because if it's the other guy who's the bad guy, we can wait forever for them to change. But if it's us seeing how we behave in the world, then we can do something about it. Sammy: Advocates say there are steps that we can take to understand rape culture and the roles we may play in it. Carissa: We know that it is harmful. How do we end it? How do I, you know? I talk to my younger cousins or my younger friends are like “I would never rape anyone.” But truly, it goes beyond that. It's how does, how do you relate to the people in your life or how do you relate to individuals that report to you, or how do you interact with individuals in public? Those interactions are very much playing a role into the way that we can prevent and end sexual violence. Sammy: Carissa Gutierrez is with ValorUS, formerly the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Here’s her advice: start reading books and articles about sexual violence. Connect with your local rape crisis center about upcoming workshops or events. You can learn the facts about assault so that you’ll be able to debunk myths when you hear them. You’ve already begun by listening to this podcast. Her group recently launched a whole campaign about individual actions that people can take to combat rape culture. It’s called “Bold Moves.” Carissa: One example that I really like is be spatially observant. How do people take up space? If you are on a bus and you see the way, you know, we call the man spreading, right? A man takes up space or is too close to a woman, and she's clearly very uncomfortable. It's recognizing, do you do that too? So a lot of these bold moves or these steps are really just about raising self awareness and realizing that these behaviors actually make other people feel unsafe. Sammy: And learning about how to interact with and respect each other — that can start as early as kindergarten. In 2019 California approved a first of its kind K-12 sexual education framework. Brittany: It's important to start talking about these issues as early as possible in an age appropriate way, and that means, you know, talking about consent in kindergarten Sammy: Brittany Bray helped develop the framework. She works at WEAVE — that’s Sacramento’s rape crisis center. Brittany: You know, we're not talking about consent in terms of sexual activity in kindergarten, but we are talking about respecting boundaries and learning to ask permission, talking about bodily autonomy and respect for one another. And it's important because it sets the foundation for those later conversations and talking about specifically sexual assault and teen dating violence and sex trafficking Sammy: But the guidance isn’t mandatory. And Bray says it was tough for them to get it into schools. Brittany: Some of the public comment said that it was encouraging sexual behavior early on and talking about consent encourages sexual activity, which is not the case. Alternative justice Reporting a sexual assault to law enforcement isn’t the right choice for everyone. Some survivors may be wary of negative treatment by police, or just overwhelmed by the idea of going through the legal reporting process. Some survivors and activists say it’s time to completely let go of criminal justice outcomes for sexual assault and explore other options. Listen / download audio Sammy: sujatha baliga is a survivor, and she says the challenges that she experienced while working with law enforcement got her interested in restorative justice — it’s a process that involves mediation between the survivor and the person or people who cause them harm, without involving law enforcement. sujatha: But what if we offered something else? What if we made other methods of feeling that what happened to us was, was acknowledged and was, was, was held and even compensated for potentially in ways that we need for that to happen. And that rather than... when I talk to crime survivors, what I often hear is I just don't want this person to do that again, right? And the story is, is that a prison term is what's going to prevent that from happening. But again, we know from recidivism rates that, you know, prison, not prison doesn't really do a darn thing about whether or not people reoffend, right? Whether somebody was going to reoffend is related to many, many other things and has to do with protective factors that are placed around the person who has caused the harm. And they're really beginning to understand what it is that they did and why they need to not ever do that again for themselves and for somebody else. And so we just haven’t offered, we haven’t offered people another option. Sammy: baliga says options can include one on one dialogues conducted by a trained counselor, healing circles with friends or family. I asked her if this could be combined with the law enforcement process somehow. If practitioners like her could help perpetrators heal, AND there could be consequences through the criminal justice system. But she says that gets tricky, because it takes power away from the survivor. sujatha: Right when we're having restorative justice processes that are not operating in tandem with the, with the state, we have the most freedom to attend to survivors’ needs at their own pace, in their own way. When, when their restorative justice programs operate in relationship to the state, then the state is driving, the state is still driving the train, right? Especially the timeline train, which can go faster than some survivors are ready to, but often go way slower. You're waiting and waiting and waiting for justice, and that can be really frustrating.