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Advocates: Criminal justice system can be traumatic for sexual assault survivors

Apr 16, 2021, 5:33 PM
joyce yost survivors of sexual assault help for rape victims...
Joyce Yost made the difficult decision to report her rape because she worried her attacker could victimize others. Photo courtesy of the Joyce Yost family.

SALT LAKE CITY — The criminal justice system isn’t just difficult to navigate for survivors of sexual assault; it can be traumatic. 

Victims often choose to avoid reporting sexual assault in order to avoid that trauma, focusing on healing rather than justice. 

“Over 80% of victims — survivors of sexual assault, do not report to the police,” said Sonia Martinez-Ortiz, the executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, during Episode 2 of Talking Cold, the podcast that delves into the issues raised in the Cold Podcast. “And we must ask ourselves why? Why is that number so high?”

Why many sexual assault survivors don’t report

In a new episode of “Talking Cold,” Martinez-Ortiz and victim’s rights attorney Bethany Warr offered insight into why so many survivors of sexual assault choose not to report what happened to them to police. Among the reasons are the stigma and shame associated with any sex crime; there is also the judgment survivors endure from friends and families to police and prosecutors. 

Joyce Yost, whose story is chronicled in COLD Season 2, went from fighting with her rapist to trying to negotiate and even sympathize with him. In her police interview, she worried investigators might misunderstand her decision to stop fighting and to try and stay alive.

Related: Communication breakdown between law enforcement failed Joyce Yost

“Negotiating is not consent,” Martinez-Ortiz said. “This is actually a very typical trauma response. So many folks have probably heard the term like fight or flight in trauma response — so there’s actually fight, flight, freeze and fawn. …This is an example of fawn, which is essentially where the person experiencing the trauma will seek for ways to negotiate to make themselves more likable, to please the person in hopes that that will reduce the harm. In some cases like this one, [it] will actually prevent them from being killed.”

Survivors victimized all over again

Attorney Warr said that retelling the story of a sexual assault can be far too painful. Oftentimes, the focus is on the victim’s behavior and decisions, rather than the accused. That can lead to more shame and more guilt for survivors.

“So the victimization continues throughout the process,” she said, listing off the issues survivors face as they attempt to hold an attacker accountable. “I will say in terms of sexual assault, I don’t have one client that’s ever told me they were glad that they reported it. … A vast majority of clients, if they say anything, they say, ‘I wish I never, ever would have even started this process.'”

Talking about sexual assault

Both Warr and Martinez-Ortiz said discussing consent and boundaries is critical to prevention. 

“Some folks get really fearful when you start saying, ‘Talk to kids younger,'” she said. “We don’t have to talk to first-graders about sex, but we should start by talking about body autonomy. … Those are things that we engage in as a culture that we don’t realize. We’ll set the foundation as folks start to get older and understand about developing healthy relationships, body autonomy and boundaries. … If we wait until the high school curriculum, it’s too late.”

Asked how we continued to move toward as a society more supportive and empathetic to survivors, she said we need to keep talking about tough, uncomfortable issues.

“We keep talking to people like yourself, who are willing to have the conversations with us,” Martinez-Ortiz said. “And the goal really is that you take those into your households. You take them to your kitchen tables and yourself as in your car rides, to school and to sports and to dance. You have these conversations with the people who are closest in your life, and that is prevention.”

Free resources and help with sexual abuse are available 24/7 at RAINN.org.  You can also call 800-856-HOPE (4673).

How to listen

Listen to COLD and Talking Cold for free, no subscription required, on Amazon Music.  You can find bonus content, including videos, pictures and case materials at the COLD website.

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Advocates: Criminal justice system can be traumatic for sexual assault survivors