III. Victims of Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is one of
the most traumatic types of criminal victimization. Whereas most crime
victims find it difficult to discuss their victimization, sexual assault
victims find it especially painful. One obvious reason for this is the
difficulty that many people have in talking about sex. A more important
reason, however, is that many victims of sexual assault are intensely
traumatized not only by the humiliation of their physical violation but
by the fear of being severely injured or killed.
The three primary responsibilities
of law enforcement in sexual assault cases are to (1) protect, interview,
and support the victim; (2) investigate the crime and apprehend the perpetrator;
and (3) collect and preserve evidence of the assault that will assist
in the prosecution of the assailant.
In the investigation and
prosecution of most sexual assault cases, the role of the victim is much
more important than in other crimes since the victim is usually the sole
witness to the crime. Unfortunately, sexual assault victims are sometimes
reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement because they fear the perpetrator
will return to retaliate.
Only men and women who have suffered
the trauma of sexual assault themselves can begin to understand the depth
and complexity of the feelings experienced by sexual assault victims.
Even so, your approach as a first responder to sexual assault victims
can significantly affect whether the victims begin the road to recovery
or suffer years of trauma and anguish.
Tips for Responding to Victims of Sexual Assault
Be prepared for virtually any type of emotional reaction
by victims. Be unconditionally supportive and permit victims to express
their emotions, which may include crying, angry outbursts, and screaming.
Avoid interpreting the victim's calmness or composure
as evidence that a sexual assault did or did not occur. The victim
could be in shock. (Note: False accusations of sexual assault are
estimated to occur at the low rate of 2 percentsimilar to the
rate of false accusations for other violent crimes.)
Approach victims calmly. Showing your outrage at the
crime may cause victims even more trauma.
Ask victims whether they would like you to contact
a family member or friend.
Offer to contact a sexual assault crisis counselor.
Ask victims whether they would prefer a male or female counselor.
In addition, ask the victims whether they would prefer talking with
you or a law enforcement officer of the opposite sex.
Be careful not to appear overprotective or patronizing.
Remember that it is normal for victims to want to
forget, or to actually forget, details of the crime that are difficult
for them to accept.
Encourage victims to get medical attention, especially
to check for possible internal injuries. In addition, a medical examination
can provide evidence for the apprehension and prosecution of the victim's
assailant. Keep in mind, however, that victims may feel humiliated
and embarrassed that their bodies were exposed during the sexual assault
and must be exposed again during a medical examination. Explain what
will take place forensically during the examination and why these
procedures are important.
Notify the hospital of the incoming victim/patient
and request a private waiting room. Escort victims to the hospital.
If no crisis intervention counselor is available, wait at the hospital
until victims are released and escort them to their destination.
Be mindful of the personal, interpersonal, and privacy
concerns of victims. They may have a number of concerns, including
the possibility of having been impregnated or contracting sexually
transmitted diseases such as the AIDS virus; the reactions of their
spouse, mate, or parents; media publicity that may reveal their experience
to the public; and the reactions and criticism of neighbors and coworkers
if they learn about the sexual assault.
Interview victims with extreme sensitivity. Minimize
the number of times victims must recount details of the crime to strangers.
If possible, only one law enforcement officer should be assigned to
the initial interview and subsequent investigation.
Offer to answer any further questions victims may
have and provide any further assistance they may need.
Encourage victims to get counseling. Explain that
your recommendation for counseling is based on having seen other victims
benefit from it in the past. Explain that they may experience posttraumatic
stress symptoms in the next few months. Identify and refer them to
support services for assistance.