The Impact of Sexual Assault on Justice-Involved Women Guest Contributor: Hallie Williams*
It is undeniable that both men and women are affected by sexual assault, but it is indisputable that women are disproportionately affected. To be precise, in the United States, there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018). A staggering 1 in 6 women will be victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, while the statistic for men is 1 in 33 (National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 1998). No matter who the victims are, these numbers are far too high to call the United States a “safe” country. People intended to be protected by the government frequently end up harmed and thrown into a cycle of violence that dramatically alters the trajectory of their lives. For women involved in the justice system, they have been among the most susceptible to sexual abuse or likely to have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. Our community and justice system must do better to protect them from harm.
Assault can psychologically impact survivors for their whole life. Many survivors live with the invisible pain. There is an increased risk of suicide and depressive thoughts among survivors, autoimmune disease, and an increased risk of drug use or dependence (Kilpatrick, 1992). A survivor’s brain can put itself in a constant state of fight or flight. This continued increase of adrenaline and cortisol wears down the body. A continuous state of stress and fear makes the body weak and puts survivors at increased risk for autoimmune diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Lupus (Striebel, 2021). In addition, adverse childhood experiences (ACE), including sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence, significantly impact the survivor’s mental health, well-being, and future (Kilpatrick et al., 2000). An ACE score of 6 or more may affect one’s life expectancy up to 20 years. Over 90% of women served at the Center for Women in Transition have experienced trauma, including sexual violence, in their lives; the average ACE score for clients at the Center is 5.62. Another example of an adverse childhood experience is a parent with a substance use disorder; this puts children at risk of suffering from a substance use disorder later in their own lives, which incarcerated women are more likely to report experiencing (Roxburgh and MacArthur, 2018). These traumas experienced throughout one’s life put them at risk for experiencing more trauma and creates a cycle of violence, and frequently, sexual abusers have experienced abuse themself (Streibel, 2021). Each adverse experience puts the person at risk of experiencing more trauma and builds a fragile foundation for raising their children in a similarly hostile environment. Survivors need to be believed and heard, and they need resources to help them heal.
Silencing and victim-blaming are highly harmful because survivors often do not receive support after their assault. This culture of disbelief has kept survivors from reporting their assault. An estimated 65% of sexual assault goes unreported (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011). During Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Justice nomination hearings in 2018, many survivors witnessed the most powerful legal institution uphold this societal culture of disbelief. To confront one’s abuser is extremely challenging, and to do so in front of the entire country took immense courage that empowered many survivors around the world. A more supportive society needs to exist for survivors to tell their stories without being questioned and blamed. It should be easier for survivors to tell their story and gain support no matter if the assault just happened or if it happened in the past. Assault is never the survivor’s fault, but they continue to take the blame, especially if their assailant is in a position of power. If survivors felt believed or had a support system to rely on, the trajectory of their lives could look immensely different. Sexual assault can spark a cycle of violence that puts survivors at an increased risk of substance use, mental health issues, and incarceration (Wolff, Shi & Siegel, 2009). It is possible that if these women felt heard, they could have avoided imprisonment and other dangers. A culture of believing survivors could combat these adverse effects.
Not only is sexual assault a pervasive issue on the outside, but it also exists inside U.S. prisons and jails. A study performed on 148 corrections officers found that officers who demonstrated more sexual bias and victim-blaming toward inmates disagreed with the empirical definition of sexual assault (Sharp, 2021). This data was collected through the corrections officers completing the Risk Factors for Prison Rape survey. The study also found that male corrections officers were more likely to exhibit victim-blaming and not believe allegations of sexual assault. If the people in charge at these facilities are not listening to survivors and taking them seriously, it creates a dangerous environment because sexual assault is an attack on both body and mind, and they are at further risk of experiencing repeated sexual assault. Since the ratification of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, progress has been made to protect incarcerated people from sexual assault. Still, these traumatic experiences persist, and reporting them oftentimes gets people put in solitary confinement, which can also be highly damaging. In this case, a system intended to help and protect has done the opposite. Incarcerated people have higher rates of particular infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and behavioral disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression (Wolff, Shi & Siegel, 2009). More reform is needed in U.S. prisons and the justice system to create a comfortable and habitable place for people to feel safe and eventually return to society. Further than reform, alternatives to incarceration puts fewer people at risk to the dangers of sexual assault in prison and contribute to a more just justice system.
Women are painfully aware of assault statistics; they cross parking lots in fear, don’t jog at night, and always check their back seat. Instead of continually reminding women of these dangers, we need to educate men on assault statistics. Men are the perpetrators of 90% of violent crimes in the U.S., and the portrayal of men being manly through violence is to blame (Katz, 1999). Our culture needs to change to make society a safer place for women. When someone makes a misogynist joke in our everyday lives, and we laugh and go along, we strengthen this culture that puts women down. When we disbelieve survivors of sexual assault, we contribute to the culture of disbelief: the population’s behaviors and opinions shape society. We must choose the less traveled path and stand up and stop sexist and disbelieving behavior when we encounter it; this is the only way to incite change in the justice system, workplace, and classroom. When someone says the joke was offensive and not funny, the person who made it will begin to see the error of their ways, and a change will begin. When someone puts faith in and believes a survivor of sexual assault, they will feel safe and heard, and their cycle of violence can be interrupted. Implementing support systems for survivors can help them move on from their trauma; they need someone to tell them everything will be okay. Societal change must happen before we see a change in representative media and legislature. The U.S. has a problem with sexual assault, but we can start to make a change in our communities that will contribute to the end of rape culture, society’s eventual betterment, and a safer place for everyone.
*Hallie Williams is a student at Saint Louis University and volunteer at the Center for Women in Transition.