Commentary: Unite in the fight against sexual violence

On Nov. 19, The Salt Lake Tribune published an editorial, “BYU should train students that sexual assault victims have no need to repent.” I completely agree with the title, as sexual assault victims have absolutely no need to repent. Yet, as a forensic nurse and researcher, I have concerns about other messages within the editorial.

First, the editorial implied that Brigham Young University students who were victims of sexual assault met with their bishop to “repent” of the sexual assault. This is an inaccurate assumption. The BYU Campus Climate Survey revealed that while most students (64 percent) did not report incidents of sexual assault to any formal source, 26 percent of students reported the unwanted sexual contact to their ecclesiastical leader (e.g., bishop, stake president or mission president). In my work with victims, I have found that they meet with their ecclesiastical leaders for confidential spiritual and emotional support which is needed following traumatic events. Indeed, the BYU Campus Climate Survey revealed that 86 percent of victims who confided in their ecclesiastical leaders found the experience to be helpful.

The editorial also said, “And students should be turning to police to report such assaults. Not bishops.” I am fully supportive of victims reporting sexual assaults to law enforcement, as this is necessary to reduce sexual violence. In fact, I encourage my patients (sexual assault victims) to report to police while maintaining their autonomy in making this decision. Yet, in my experience in caring for victims, I have learned that many victims need time and support to process how to proceed after a sexual assault. They need to understand their options and be given control to make decisions.

Rape takes control away from victims. Helping victims regain a sense of control promotes healing. Guidance from confidential advisors helps with this process and is available from rape advocacy centers and hotlines, campus victims’ advocates, therapists and ecclesiastical leaders. The U.S. military has taken the approach of providing confidential reporting in sexual assault cases and found it has increased reporting to law enforcement. By first reporting to confidential advisors, victims often feel more supported, leading to higher reporting rates to law enforcement and better psychological outcomes for victims.

My other significant concern within the editorial is the lack of addressing rape as a health care issue. In addition to directing victims to report to confidential advisors and/or law enforcement, victims should be encouraged to receive health care. When victims report sexual assault within five days of the assault, they can receive medical forensic examinations at no cost to victims at most hospital emergency departments. Victims are then given choices — to receive medications to prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, have evidence collected and/or talk to law enforcement about the assault. In addition, victims are provided resources, information on options and referrals for follow-up care. They receive victim-centered, trauma-informed health care to begin their healing process. ​

Low reporting rates of sexual assaults should be of concern within our community and campuses. If sexual assault victims do not report the assaults, then they suffer in silence often resulting in negative psychological outcomes. In addition, perpetrators of sexual violence continue to assault others. To increase reporting, we need to unite as a society in supporting disclosures of sexual assault. The Start by Believing program by End Violence Against Women International establishes guidelines for how to react to disclosures of sexual assault.

When someone reports sexual assault, our simple response should be, “I believe you. I’m sorry this happened. What can I do to help?” Unfortunately, there is a common myth that many sexual assaults are false reports. This is not true. Research has found that between 2 percent and 8 percent of reported sexual assaults are false reports – the same percentage of false reports in other crimes. To perpetuate the myth of high false reporting rates in sexual assault hurts victims and our work to eradicate sexual violence.

Eliminating sexual and interpersonal violence in our community can only be accomplished by uniting together. I believe good people across different professions, political persuasions, sexual orientations, cultures, ethnicities and religious affiliations are united in the goal to reduce and eliminate sexual violence. The time has come to end the “us against them” messaging by some in the media and community that fighting against sexual violence is only endorsed by certain categories of people. By attacking each other or groups of people, we only undermine our collective resolve to end sexual violence. The only “us against them” messaging should be “us against rapists.” We must unite together to strengthen our commitment to support sexual assault victims, increase reporting rates, and eradicate sexual violence.

Even reading articles and editorials about sexual assault can be emotionally difficult or triggering for sexual assault survivors. Help is available from the Rape Recovery Center 24/7 Crisis Line: 801-467-7273.

Julie Valentine, Ph.D., RN, is an assistant professor in the Brigham Young University College of Nursing, a certified sexual assault nurse examiner with Wasatch Forensic Nurses.