VALLEY — April is Sexual Assault Prevention Month, and I was asked by our partners at Tu Casa to write about the topic of sexual assault from the perspective of a prosecutor. I am the Chief Trial Deputy District Attorney for the 12th Judicial District, as well as the primary prosecuting attorney for sexual offenses (against both adults and children).
The topic of sexual assault is a serious and distressing one, but my experience prosecuting this type of offense has instilled in me the necessity of hope. As prosecutors, we are tasked with seeing the worst that humanity has to offer. It seems very often that we dwell in the darkness where few would willingly choose to look; and sexual assaults are the epitome of the brokenness in which we work.
Hope is necessary to survive.
The #METOO movement has taken a spotlight to the pervasiveness of sexual assault as well as the destruction it leaves behind. The movement has also, I think, been a force for change. It has been a reckoning for the perpetrators of this abuse as well as the survivors of it. We, as a culture, have been forced to confront the reality in which these assaults have occurred. We have had to stare down the source and backdrop of this pervasiveness. And, I hope, we are learning.
Sexual assault cases are difficult; they are full of pitfalls and struggles unique to this crime. From the moment a survivor discloses their assault, they are subjected to ongoing exposure, vulnerability, and examination. Each time they retell their story, they are revictimized, and they know what we all know but refuse to say: Hardly anybody wants to believe them.
The reality is that sexual assaults happen when nobody is around. There are rarely witnesses, and there is often not DNA. Perpetrators are often family members, intimate partners, coworkers, or friends. Ignoring for a moment that a survivor of a sexual assault is a survivor of one of the worst and most permanent kinds of trauma, survivors are also placed in the awful position of having to defend themselves if they eventually do report what's happened. Their every move and decision prior to the moment when their agency and voice were ripped from them (and every moment since) is picked and pulled apart.
"Why did you give him your number? Why did you agree to meet him that night? Why didn't you call 911 immediately if it really happened? Why did you call your best friend instead? You seem angry; are you sure you're not just mad he started dating someone else?"
They are forced to confront doctors, nurses, officers, investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and eventually, jurors. Add to this list family members, employers, landlords, and the myriad of other people who become aware of the survivor's experience (either by necessity or due to the tangible and destructive effects of trauma), and anyone would hesitate to report, especially when for so long, these stories were closeted and secreted away as shameful.
It is deeply troubling that so many people have felt the #METOO movement strike a chord, but perhaps the symphony of shared experience will make it somewhat more bearable for survivors to come forward. We must confront and reject long-accepted rape myths that lay blame at the survivor's feet. It is time that we, as a community, stand together and acknowledge that this experience is more common than we think, and far more common than it ought to be.
We can give survivors a different answer than the one they expect. We can say, simply, "I do believe you."