Sexual violence is a growing problem — and it needs to be addressed

Every 98 seconds someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, meaning every single day more than 570 people experience sexual violence, according to the Huffington Post.

It is finally time to end the social stigma surrounding sexual assaults to encourage victims to report their assault and receive the justice they deserve. Too many women and men have become victims of sexual assault, and their stories are being ignored. Victim blaming and lack of serious action taken by many universities and law enforcement allow sexual assault to continue as a rampant problem.

We live in a culture that reinforces the normalization of sexual violence, leading to victim blaming and shaming. It’s prevalent in violent rape scenes on popular T.V. shows to sexist dress codes that reinforce rape culture. It goes on from famous athletes all the way to Dr. Larry Nassar—a former Olympic doctor—accused of sexually assaulting more than 125 women. Even the president of the U.S. has been publicly accused of sexually assaulting over 15 women and was recorded boasting that he “grabs women by the pussy.”

While most acts of sexual assault go unseen and unpunished, victims are left suffering the psychological, emotional and physical effects. Many resort to self-harm and substance abuse, develop eating disorders and depression and even attempt suicide. The lack of attention given to victims makes it difficult for them to speak about their experience, let alone report it. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), about two out of three sexual assaults go unreported.

Unfortunately, another factor that contributes to underreporting is that most victims of sexual assault know their assailant; as reported by RAINN, about seven out of ten sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This tragic truth leads victims to believe that they are less likely to be believed in such a situation There is the imagined response: “your father/coach/friend/teacher would never do that,” this combined with the fact that the victim will probably have to encounter their assailant by virtue of their relationship.

Pursuing justice through the legal system is an arduous and emotionally exhausting process for most sexual assault victims, making it hard to pursue any justice at all. Sexual assault victims know this, as only 13 percent of victims between 2005 and 2010 believed the police would not do anything to help, according to RAINN.

However, when victims gather the courage to share their experiences with the police, only about 255 reports out 1000 assault and battery crimes lead to arrest. Making matters even worse, only 105 out 1000 cases get referred to prosecutors, according to RAINN. Until the level of trust between victims and law enforcement is bolstered, the unreported sexual assault will continue as a huge problem. Alleviating the problem of sexual violence in the U.S. will require stricter laws to punish perpetrators, whether it’s in schools, government offices or workplaces.

Federal action to combat sexual assault is not progressive. Recently, the Education Department formally announced rescinding Obama-era guidance on how schools should handle sexual assaults under Title IX—a federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sex for schools and programs that receive federal funding. A key change in the interim guidance, according to TIME, is that schools will be able to choose which standard of evidence to use when investigating sexual assault cases.

Title IX includes protection from sexual harassment, meaning this decision will hurt students. It will further discourage students from reporting assaults, create uncertainty for school officials, and make school campuses less safe.

It is clear the Trump administration does not regard sexual assault cases with much priority; people should contact their representatives to initiate change in Congress, as it is unjust and morally wrong to allow the vast majority of perpetrators to walk freely on American streets and risk more victims. This vicious cycle of assault and fear to report is worsened by the lack of federal efforts.

On a local level, reducing sexual assault requires an appropriate and effective response team to handle cases in school environments, organized programming, and action by school, state and federal officials is necessary.

Early education on sexual assault and consent in schools is crucial, so students can understand that it is unacceptable and learn how to report it. School staff, in addition to students, should be educated on how to identify sexual assault and how to respond.

On college campuses, police and security personnel should be trained to effectively respond to sexual assault complaints. According to a survey administered to 300 four-year colleges and universities by the Office of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, over 40% of those schools did not conduct a single sexual assault investigation over the past five years. It is extremely unlikely those campuses are free of sexual misconduct since, according to RAINN,  23.1 percent of undergraduate females and 5.4 of undergraduate males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force and violence on campus.

There should be assurance that victims will not be punished if they report an assault that occurred while they were drinking or using drugs. Many victims are blamed for insinuating assault if they are intoxicated or dressed in “revealing” clothing. This idea of victim-blaming only worsens the blame and does not address the actual crime itself or punish the perpetrator.

Sexual assault is a deeply rooted problem, and it is going to take a social and legislative change to solve it. Although sexual violence has fallen by more than half since 1993, according to RAINN, safer learning and work environments must be fostered where all people feel safe from sexual assault. Many victims fear retaliation and humiliation if they speak up. Communication and community support is crucial to ease their anxiousness and pain.