COLUMBIA — Sexual assault is one of the country's most underreported crimes — 84 percent of victims never report the incident, according to True North, a local shelter for victims of domestic abuse.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month came to a close at the end of April, with groups such as True North, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center participating in events and campaigns to increase awareness about the continuing breadth of the problem.
True North Outreach Coordinator Margaret Wessner has worked with sexual assault and domestic violence victims for a little over a year. Sexual assault is about control, not sex, Wessner said — people who commit sexual assault feed the power and control they feel when they assault others.
People often ask Wessner why someone would stay in an abusive relationship — she cites emotional dependence, economic dependence, guilt, keeping a family together, promises of change, fear of a partner’s insanity, isolation, limited resources and fear of death among many of the explanations. Wessner said she'd like to turn this all too common question around.
“My response is if it’s so terrible for the abuser that they have to assault their partner, then why doesn’t the abuser leave?” Wessner said.
She said abuse is a learned behavior, and most abusers experienced abuse as children. Wessner said abuse is normalized when a person is surrounded by it daily.
“It is learned, but it can be unlearned,” Wessner said. “It is not an excuse to abuse.”
More than half of sexual assaults committed occur inside the victim’s home or a home familiar to them and the victims typically know their attacker, Wessner said. An assaulter often chooses someone they perceive to be vulnerable in advance.
“Anyone can be raped, it’s usually not the stranger in the bushes wearing a trench coat, it’s usually someone you know and trust,” Wessner said. “Stranger rape does happen, but most of the time it is someone you know and trust."
Wessner and True North provided some warning signs of assault and tips to prevent it:
- Let someone know where you are going.
- Go to a public place when meeting someone for the first time.
- Be wary of someone who is feeding you drinks all night. Ask yourself, what is the real motive?
- As a bystander, intervene if a situation seems strange.
“You shouldn’t have to prevent it — you have the right not to be raped," Wessner said. "No one’s ever expecting assault to happen.”
Wessner highlighted warning signs of assault. An abusive person may:
- Separate you from your friends or other people.
- Insist that partners dress more sexually than the partner wants to.
- Minimize a partner’s feelings about sex.
- Withhold sex or affection as punishment.
- Criticize a partner about sex.
- Publicly show sexual interest in others.
Wessner also listed characteristics to watch for:
- Extreme jealousy of different parts of your life, whether it be friends, a job, children, hobbies or anything that is just for you.
- Control of activities, the people you are around or the clothes you wear.
- Poor impulse control, a short temper, unreasonable demands.
- Acting as if everything is always someone else’s fault, often specifically a partner's fault, and not taking responsibility for anything.
- Switching from affection to anger quickly. This creates an unstable environment for a partner who may not feel safe.
- Treating other people as objects and acting as if other people exist only to fulfill their needs.
- Displaying a fair amount of aggression, as opposed to assertion. Abusers typically process emotions poorly, Wessner said — they are either happy or angry with no middleground.
- Displaying inflexibility in gender roles.
Although these characteristics are typical, Wessner said not all of them might be present and some may be more or less prominent than others.
“Abusers come in all shapes and sizes," she said. "They are dependent on the control over you and the power it gives them."
Wessner said everyone copes differently after sexual abuse. Rape trauma syndrome is very common after sexual assault, and it presents itself differently and lasts for different amounts of time for everyone.
Victims of sexual assault can visit Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners at University Hospital, Wessner said. These nurses are trained to deal with sexual assault victims.
Wessner said victims should avoid showering, and should bring the clothes they were wearing when the assault took place. Victims are taken to a separate area with examination rooms and waiting rooms for family members or friends. Once there, victims are offered a rape kit the hospital can hold for up to six months, if the victim decides to press charges later. Nurses can also provide prophylaxis to help prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.
“Everyone deserves and has the right to a healthy relationship and to be treated with respect as an equal by their partner,” Wessner said.