Andy was told not to tell when his father sexually abused him. Lisa was told how brilliant her schoolwork was and was given extra privileges by a teacher entrusted to provide her education, who then assaulted her. Several vulnerable young teenagers were told Jeffrey Epstein simply wanted a massage.
Sexual assault is something that thrives on silence, shame, and misuse of power and authority. It’s a subject that makes some people uncomfortable, probably because most people don’t think they know anyone who has been a victim of sexual assault or abuse.
Statistics say otherwise.
One in five children is sexually abused before they reach 18. According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost 45 percent of women and 22 percent of men in Washington state have been a victim of sexual violence in their lifetime. The risk is even higher for people of color, refugees, immigrants, LGBTQ and other marginalized community members; a study released last fall showed that 94 percent of Native women in the city of Seattle have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
And yet, just 23 of every 100 rapes are ever reported to law enforcement, according to national crime data compiled by RAINN.
Why is that? When we begin to look at the power imbalances so closely tied to sexual assaults, we see a lot of reasons why survivors are reluctant to speak out.
In our four decades of helping survivors heal following sexual assault, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) has heard just about every kind of story from survivors who have been assaulted by someone in position of power over them.
Perpetrators of sexual assault frequently use their positions of power and authority over a victim to commit the assault and to make sure no one hears about it, or to cast doubt on the survivor’s story.
Power takes many different forms, but in most cases of sexual assault, it’s enabled by familiarity with the victim.
The overwhelming majority of all cases of sexual assault are between people who are in some way known to one another. In 39 percent of cases we see at KCSARC, the survivor and perpetrator are acquainted. In another 49 percent of our cases, the perpetrator of a sexual assault is actually a relative or partner. In many cases, these victims are children or young teenagers. Since there is no legal circumstance in which someone under 16 can consent to sexual contact, that is considered a child sexual assault crime.
Most readers will spot that kind of power difference.
But when a victim is older, or when a perpetrator is a younger person, it may not be as clear. Many of the teen survivors we see at KCSARC were abused by adults in positions of trust and care, such as a teacher, a coach, a foster parent or a caregiver.
We also see survivors whose abuser had control over something vital: an employer who used their power to force an employee or subordinate to engage in sex to keep a job and income; a landlord or roommate who used the threat of eviction and homelessness to assault a tenant; a step-parent or sibling threatening harm to other family members if the survivor told.
That kind of power convinces a victim — whether a child, teenager, or adult — that no one will believe you if you tell.
The way we empower ourselves to end sexual violence is to be available with support and resources when a survivor is ready to speak up. We can learn the signs of grooming. We can teach our kids that adults don’t make them keep secrets, and that surprises are different than secrets.
We all have a part to play. We invite you to visit our website or get in touch with us to learn how our community can come together and empower ourselves and equip the next generation with the knowledge and tools they need to speak up.
If you or someone you know needs help or information, a trained, caring professional at KCSARC is always there to listen. Call our 24-hour Resource Line at 1-888-998-VOICE (1-888-998-6423).
Mary Ellen Stone is Executive Director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC), a nonprofit based in Renton. Information about KCSARC’s services and programming can be found at www.kcsarc.org.