Many survivors don’t report sexual assaults because they fear no one will believe them. There’s a culture of disbelief that is pervasive in the media, pop culture, politics and law enforcement. Advocates say better training and resources for police could help survivors heal — and lead to more solved cases.
Start By Believing
Sammy: I’m Sammy Caiola. I’m the health care reporter at CapRadio in Sacramento. And before we begin this podcast, I need to give you a content warning. There will be talk about sexual violence in this podcast and in this episode. There has to be.
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Sammy: I’ve spent the past two years asking people about life after sexual assault.
Penny: It was just simply devastating for me.
Annie: I don’t like using the word victim, but it’s definitely what I feel like at this point.
Erin: So you take on a lot of the blame, because the justice system also makes you feel like you are the one.
Sammy: They’ve told me about the sleepless nights, the failure to complete simple tasks, the flashbacks. They’re mourning the loss of who they were before. Months and years after the incident, they are still trying to heal.
Monica: I really just want to be able to feel safe in my own skin. I guess I just wanted to be clean again.
Sammy: If you haven’t been through this, you probably know someone who has. One in five women are survivors of completed or attempted rape. The numbers are higher for women of color.
Even more women are victims of sexual assault — that’s a broader term that includes rape and other forms of sexual violence. Members of our project team are part of those statistics.
This podcast will give you the information that you would need to navigate the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault — or maybe help someone you love do that.
We’re also going to dig into the long-term impacts. How trauma and memory sometimes work differently for survivors. How you can give the survivor in your life the support that they need to try to heal from sexual violence — whether it’s your partner, your sibling or your colleague. This is something that can affect people for YEARS after it happens.
And we’ll look at the crucial question for survivors: how can healing happen, even when justice does not?
Jesa: All this stuff that I did. Everything they wanted, I did it. I worked so hard. And it went nowhere.
Sammy: This is After The Assault, a podcast from CapRadio.
This is our first episode: Start By Believing.
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Sammy: Here’s the email that set this whole project in motion, read by the sexual assault survivor who wrote it. She requested that we not use her full name, so we're calling her Penny. And we’ve altered her voice.
Penny: Hi Nick,
I am reaching out to you because a connection of a connection thought you might be interested in covering a story on police response to sexual assault. Their response was egregious and I know my experience is not an outlier. If you are interested, let me know how we can move forward.
Sammy: Nick is CapRadio's managing editor of news. When he got that email, he brought it to me.
Nick: So Penny’s email and my conversations with other women, other survivors, a lot of those conversations were focused on law enforcement. But I knew that this was importantly, also a story about health. About mental health, about women’s health.
I also know that believing survivors and engaging in patient, compassionate listening - that was absolutely necessary given what they’d been through with the police department, with law enforcement.
Sammy: Penny reported her assault to the Sacramento Police Department in the spring of 2018. When she reached out to us a year later, she was still deeply shaken by the experience.
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.
Dispatch: V-A-W-A — I don’t know what that is. Is that like an evidentiary rape exam? Or have you made a report?”
Sammy: Then she had to figure out where she could go to give her statement.
Penny: Is there a place where I can go?
Dispatch: We have stations but the officers aren’t at the stations, and on a report call, a cold report call, it’s probably going to take a while.
Penny: How long?
Dispatch: It could take hours.
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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.
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Sammy: Penny did choose to go to the police, but many survivors don’t, especially survivors of color. Penny describes herself as biracial, and she says that made her even more wary about going in.
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.
Sammy: I looked into this, and I found a study from the Department of Justice showing that for every Black woman who reports a rape, another 15 don’t.
Leaders from other marginalized groups told us that this is a common problem in immigrant communities, and among people who are LGBTQ. These survivors are afraid to go to law enforcement. It’s not seen as a place to seek help.
And that’s partly because of something that lots of assault survivors talked to me about: a fear of not being believed.
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Sammy: This is something I can’t emphasize enough.
The culture of not believing is so powerful that most victims don’t tell anyone about their assaults, not friends or family, not community advocates, not the police. For most survivors, there is no path to justice and healing.
We have data on that. The federal Department of Justice estimates three-quarters of all rapes go unreported.
There are a lot of reasons. A survivor might think the chances of their rapist facing consequences are slim, that nothing will come of it.
And that’s a fair assumption.
Among the Sacramento County law enforcement agencies we were able to get records from, most sexual assault cases don’t end in an arrest. Data Reporter Emily Zentner spent the past year requesting and analyzing data from these agencies. And what she found was eye-opening.
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Emily, it’s been a journey to get this data, huh?
Emily: Yeah, since November 2019, you and I have been trying to get records from law enforcement agencies just all over Sacramento County. We filed over 30 requests at this point. And you know we even got some data back from some of those. Not all of them, but a few.
Sammy: So you spent a ton of time going back and forth with public records staff. What actually came out of all of this digging? What did you find out?
Emily: The big takeaway from all of this is that most sexual assault cases don’t end in an arrest. So I was able to get data from a couple of agencies through 2019 on all sexual assault cases involving adult victims. So for the Sacramento County Sheriff, about 13% of those cases reported in 2019 ended in an arrest. For the Citrus Heights Police Department, about 10% did.
Sammy: So Emily, you already talked about the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. What about the Sacramento Police Department? They do the policing for the city of Sacramento.
Emily: So that answer is a little bit more complicated, and that’s because they needed us to narrow our request to specific penal codes. So that means that the data they gave us is just less broad than what the county and Citrus Heights gave us. And their data also includes victims of all ages, so not just adults.
But with that said, the specific rape, assault, sexual battery and spousal rape cases they were able to give us that occured in 2019, about a quarter of those ended in an arrest. So the takeaway here again is just that most of these cases are not ending in someone being arrested.
Sammy: How does this compare to arrest rates for other crimes?
Emily: As we talked about, we really had to work for this data. We were only able to get data on sexual assault cases, so I can’t answer that for Sacramento County unfortunately. But the FBI collects numbers nationally on this, and they found that around 60% of murders and about half of aggravated assaults ended in an arrest or were cleared by something else called exceptional means in 2019. That’s compared to around 30% of rapes.
Sammy: Wow. Yes Emily I can totally see why some people would be hesitant to report this crime if these are the odds.
Emily: Yeah, you can understand why some survivors might have a hard time.
Sammy: So Emily I’m definitely going to check back in with you in future episodes to find out more about all of the data you’ve looked at. Thank you so much.
Emily: No problem, thanks Sammy.
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Sammy: Some survivors don’t report because they’ve heard the law enforcement process for investigating rape has many, many steps. That it takes a long time, and it can be retraumatizing.
And others are hesitant because they simply don’t feel they’ll be taken seriously.
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.
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.
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Sammy: Throughout this podcast, I’m going to lay out what’s working and what’s not in the law enforcement side of the process. The agencies that you’ll hear from in this and future episodes say that they’re working hard to make this process less painful. And although our reporting focuses on the Sacramento, California area, what we found is typical of what’s happening around the country.
You’re going to hear directly from survivors in this podcast. I’m not going to tell you all the details of their rapes, because it doesn’t get at the heart of the story. It’s not about the attack. It’s about what happens AFTER.
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Sammy: We made a decision early on to believe survivors. We also decided to look deeply into their stories. We investigated what they told us by reviewing their case histories and interviewing law enforcement about it. We requested extensive public records and statistics on assault cases from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, six local police departments and two university police departments. We received detailed information on case outcomes and we’ll break everything down in later episodes of this podcast.
This project began when one survivor, Penny, reached out to us to tell us her story. We listened. And we invited seven other survivors to talk with us so we could begin to understand their experiences.
Some of them already knew each other from a therapy group and some of them were strangers. They now make up what we call the “survivor cohort.”
They have helped shape this project from start to finish. 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 we want to note here that people all over the gender and sexual orientation spectrums experience sexual violence.
Some cohort members reported to the police, and some didn’t.
I spent many hours with these cohort members over the course of a year and a half. You're going to hear from all of them in this podcast.
So here is me asking the very first question, the first time that I had them all in the studio.
Sammy: So 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.
Sammy: We’re going to refer to people as survivors unless it’s in direct reference to the criminal justice process.
There was something else that kept coming up while I was interviewing survivors: shame. It’s like they knew that the rape wasn’t their fault, but they continued to blame themselves.
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.
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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?
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 is this tendency to brush it off as “not a big deal.”
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.
Sammy: So if someone tells you that they were sexually assaulted, it is crucial that you believe them. If a survivor wants to go to the police, what happens during that first contact with law enforcement can make all the difference to their healing process.
Dave: Officers and investigators play such a significant role in victims’ willingness to participate in the investigation, and that victim’s ability to cope with the emotional and psychological effects of the crime.
Sammy: Dave Thomas with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Dave: Like all reported crimes, every sexual assault investigation should be initiated with the belief that the allegation is true and then a thorough investigation is required to determine the facts each and every time.
Sammy: But not all law enforcement think this way. We talked to Sgt. Michelle Hendricks at the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department. She was running their sexual assault and elder abuse unit before retiring last spring.
We asked her about the “Start By Believing” concept.
Michelle: I think the bottom line is it’s not our job to believe or not believe, our job is to gather the facts. That’s something I preach to my detectives … because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. What might sound crazy to you, sounds like Tuesday to me... That’s the reason for me wanting to meet with you guys, is to delineate the roles. The WEAVE advocates or any advocates in the community, they are there for the emotional support. If I became emotionally invested in everything that I did in this job, I probably wouldn’t have made it past 1995. So there is a line that needs to be established. But the line doesn’t need to cause conflict. The role is to obtain the facts and pursue the evidence.”
Sammy: For Penny, the one who emailed us, adjusting to life after rape has been a long process. She does a lot to try to restore a sense of safety in her day-to-day life, and to come to terms with the ways that she’s changed since the assault.
Penny: It's hard to describe. It's like a total destruction of your being and then having to build yourself back up brick by brick so that you can function and the amount of pain and the amount of tears, it's almost, it just is indescribable.
Sammy: Survivors say sexual trauma is not something you get over, or recover from. Everyone in the survivor cohort is at a different point on a long and difficult healing journey.
Annie: You know, you get there and you feel that strength, but it's like, why did it have to take all of this to get here?
Aurora: I really just want to be able to feel safe in my own skin. Again, it does change you forever, but the real traumatic response would just not be there. I don’t know if that’s even possible fully.
Maddie: I feel like as long as we’re talking about this and we keep releasing these things, we’re healing.
Sammy: You can learn more about reporting a sexual assault in Sacramento County and how to support survivors on their healing journeys at Capradio.org/after.
Sammy: In episode two, we’ll explore what sexual assault survivors have in common with other people who have survived traumatic events.
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 kinds of memories that soldiers have from their combat experiences.
Sammy: You’ll hear more from neuroscientist Jim Hopper in our next episode, Your Brain on Rape.
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MARCI: My name is Marci Bridgeford, and I’m the director of community response at WEAVE, Sacramento County’s rape crisis center. We support survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking. We have a 24-hour, seven day a week support and information line you can call at any time, at 916-920-2952. You may also reach out to us via our message boards or chat features on our website at weaveinc.org.
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Sammy: After The Assault is a production of CapRadio in Sacramento, California.
Emily Zentner is our data reporter.
Catherine Stifter is our podcast editor.
Sally Schilling designed the sound.
Mark Jones is our audio engineer.
jesikah maria ross directed the project in collaboration with Nick Miller, CapRadio’s Managing News Editor.
Joe Barr is our Chief Content Officer.
Music is by Jay Urban. Audio chords from Pond5, Empyreal Glow and Anchor.
We want to hear from you. Go to Capradio.org/feedback to tell us what you think about what you heard in this podcast. We welcome your comments and your questions. Visit Capradio.org/feedback.
We’d like to thank Annie, Aurora, Erin, Jesa, Maddie, Monica, Laura and Penny for helping us shape this project.
Thanks also to Sacramento’s Sexual Assault Response Team and area advocacy groups for their ongoing consultation and participation.
After The Assault was produced with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund.
I’m Sammy Caiola, thanks for listening to After The Assault.