Susan Madsen: It’s time to break the silence about rape in Utah

Utah women are more likely than other Americans to be victims of sexual assault.

There is no nice way to say this: Rape is a major problem in Utah.

Perhaps we use our discomfort as an excuse to look away. But ignoring it has not made it go away. In fact, it is the only violent crime for which Utah’s rate is higher than the national average, and this has been the case for decades. Yet only limited public funding has been allocated for either prevention programs or victim assistance.

In addition, for the most part, related efforts have not attracted major private donations to make much of a dent in terms of changing this destructive trend in our state. It is not a “warm and fuzzy” cause. Yet, day after day, more Utahn’s lives are negatively impacted in ways that carry lifelong consequences for victims and their families.

Let me share data from a number of sources: First, the most recent findings from the FBI show that in 2019 the rape rate in Utah was 56.8 per 100,000 adults, compared to 42.6 per 100,000 adults nationally. And those are only reported rapes, as the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has estimated that only 11.8% of women report sexual assault to law enforcement.

Second, in past years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that 18.1% of Utah women have been raped, with nearly half of Utah’s female population (47.8%) having experienced some form of sexual violence in her lifetime other than rape.

Third, the Utah Department of Health calls sexual violence in Utah a “serious public health problem” and reports that, based on Utah studies, one in six women experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime and that “nearly one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence during their lives.” But we still avoid talking about it.

And finally, every few years, the CDC publishes the results of their Youth Risk Behavior survey, and the findings continue to be troubling. One in five Utah girls (grades 9 through 12) report having been sexually assaulted in the last year. In fact, more than three-fourths of all sexual assault victims in Utah (78.7%) reported being sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday, with more than one-third of these victims (34.9%) stating they were assaulted before their 10th birthday.

Many people ask why rape and sexual assault numbers are so high in Utah and what can be done. The Utah Department of Health has identified the following priority risk and protective factors that could help Utahns change this trend, and I will expand on each:

1. Societies that have more gender equity tend to have lower instances of sexual violence; Utah has been ranked for years as the worst state for women’s equality.

2. Communities that have less traditional gender norms are more likely to have lower levels of gender-based violence. This relates to power dynamics.

3. Cultures that have “social norms that support violence/sexual violence” have more sexual violence. Importantly, silence can be construed as “support” as can lack of active discussions, efforts and programs directly opposing such behaviors.

4. Higher levels of “association with pro-social peers” lead to lower levels of sexual assault. This means that when more “peers” are positive examples of nonviolence — in word and action — levels of violence will decrease.

5. When more individuals, families and communities increase their skills in solving problems in nonviolent manners, instances of rape and other types of sexual assault will decrease.

6. Increased community support and connectedness have been shown to decrease sexual assault and other types of violence.

As I said at the beginning, rape is a major problem in Utah and one that has been ignored for way too long. Decreasing sexual assault should be one of our top concerns in the state of Utah. You can learn more from the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Defend Innocence, and the Utah Women & Leadership Project’s “Violence Against Women” Toolkit. For those who need immediate help, call Utah’s 24-hour Sexual Violence Helpline at 1(888) 421-1100.

I urge us all — as parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, neighbors, lawmakers and religious, business and community leaders — to increase our own awareness and then do more to help. Utah must do better. It’s time to break the silence.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Utah State University.