Webinar presenters Victoria Riechers and Lindsay Ashworth answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Understanding Sexual Violence and Appropriate Responses to Survivors. Here are some of their responses.
Audience Question: Could you talk a little bit more why people with disabilities are at so much more of a risk of sexual assault/violence?
Victoria Riechers: A person with disabilities is three times more likely to experience sexual violence than a person without disabilities. A person with an intellectual or developmental disability is actually 7 times more likely to experience sexual assault. When we look at why this happens, it’s really important to keep in mind that slide on targeting a survivor. Most people who commit sexual harm are looking for someone who is vulnerable, accessible, and lacks credibility. People with disabilities, especially if they have a cognitive disability, might not be believed if they report sexual violence. Sometimes responders might think that person just made it up, or they might think that people with disabilities don’t understand what happened. Oftentimes, we see responders giving the benefit of the doubt to the caregiver, and we know caregivers may often be the person that is committing the crime. Another reason may be that people with disabilities often come into contact with a lot of different people who have power over them in some way, and so that increases their chance of being a victim of sexual assault. There is a great resource called the Vera Institute and they do some research on people with disabilities and sexual violence.
Aaron: A comment from one of the attendees, Melissa says, “Excellent information. It’s amazing how a person can be doing victim advocacy work for over a decade and still find something new to learn.”
Audience Question: Have you seen an increase in sexual assault cases as more states legalize marijuana?
Lindsay Ashworth: I haven’t heard of that connection being made.
Victoria Riechers: I haven’t either and I imagine it still might be a little too soon to get that data. Oftentimes the prevalence data will come out several years after it is collected. It might still be a little too soon to know if there is a connection if anyone is doing research on that.
Aaron: Another comment from Leslie who says, “I agree with the previous comment.” She’s been in the business for 25 years and took 3 pages notes from your presentation. It’s a testament to the quality of the information you provided today.
Audience Question: Is it ever appropriate to share your own sexual assault story with a survivor you are working with?
Lindsay Ashworth: Good question. There are certain times when I think it could be beneficial to make that rapport and connection with the person. But I think keeping in mind that it’s the survivor’s time to tell their story and they’re coming to you for services. The short answer is yes, I think there is a time and place for saying something like, “Something similar happened to me and I can understand some of what you’re going through.” The purpose of sharing your experience is to build rapport, trust, and to help the victim feel they are not alone.
Victoria Riechers: Another thing to keep in mind is self-care. A lot of folks doing this work have their own experiences with being a survivor and sometimes having that boundary of not telling the people you’re working with can be important for self-care.
Audience Question: How many victims who are considered elderly are assaulted? Have you seen any current statistics on this kind of assault?
Lindsay Ashworth: We can’t think of exact statistics at the top of our head. We do know as a person ages, oftentimes, with sexual assault, they are less likely to be a victim. At age 60, it does decrease. But in that age range of 60 and above that person has a higher chance and higher likelihood of being victimized as they get older.
Victoria Riechers: One thing we know is that elderly folks who are in nursing homes, in particular, are at an increased risk of sexual assault. Basically, what Lindsay was kind of saying is that when someone hits 60, the risk decreases but once they go into a nursing home or an institution like that their risk will then increase again.
Audience Question: What are some tips to keep in mind if the perpetrator is also a victim of sexual violence?
Lindsay Ashworth: I think it’s important to recognize a person’s humanity and that oftentimes, someone who has experienced trauma will engage in behaviors that could be problematic. I think that trauma-informed care is important with victims and perpetrators to be honest because we have to recognize the person’s humanity and if we don’t we are essentially isolating and giving up on that person, which can increase the risk of reoffending.
Victoria Riechers: It’s a false binary between victims and perpetrators. Oftentimes they can overlap which is really unfortunate. But it’s really important to keep in mind, like Lindsay said, to look at them as a full person. If you’re working with a victim who’s perpetrator was someone who is also a victim, that can be very difficult for that victim to process. If you’re working with a perpetrator who has also been victimized, we need to keep in mind that we shouldn’t look at them as just a perpetrator or just a victim. We need to look at how the trauma has impacted them and potentially influenced the decisions they made in their life so that we are able to provide the support and healing they need.
Audience Question: What is the best way to work with survivors who are angry or choose not to seek other resources such as counseling and therapy?
Victoria Riechers: I think the best thing that we can do is just provide the resources, but we really do need to allow them to make their own decisions. They might be really angry, very understandably so, and they just might not be ready to engage with a counselor at this time. But they might come back in a few years and ask if you still have those counseling resources. So just giving folks time and space and allowing them to make their own decisions is the most that we can do.
Lindsay Ashworth: It can be really frustrating if we have all these resources and we want to help them in their healing process and they’re just not there yet. But I think, just continuing to provide those resources and allowing them to go through that anger process because that is a part of healing.
Audience Question: What are your thoughts on support groups for sexual assault victims? Is it effective or ineffective?
Lindsay Ashworth: I believe there is research out there to suggest that group sessions are effective. There are many purposes for support groups. It could be comforting for a survivor to be in community with other survivors and also allows for the distribution of sexual assault information. For example, often times survivors freeze during their sexual assault, and they might not be aware that freezing is actually really common and doesn’t mean that they let it happen or was their fault. I think support groups are a great way to facilitate the healing process.
Victoria Riechers: Another thing the research shows is that it’s the best practice to have support groups based on the type of violence – so having a sexual assault-specific support group that is separate from a domestic violence support group, that sort of thing. If survivors that experienced sexual assault go to a domestic violence focused support group, they might feel out of place.
Audience Question: Referencing to the Brock Turner trial, has anyone done any research about the impacts on the community based on the Brock Turner trial 2 years ago, specifically increases potentially the number of sexual assaults in the area? Have you seen any studies on that?
Victoria Riechers: We haven’t. We know the community was outraged. The judge who made the decision about Brock Turner was actually voted out of his judge position. We see that happening in different places where if there are weak community sanctions through the criminal justice system, sometimes the community does come up with a different response.We don’t really know necessarily the impact on the amount of sexual violence happening afterward, but cases like this are so common it would likely be very difficult to isolate and study.
Lindsay Ashworth: I will say based on what we see in prevalence rates overtime is that they really haven’t changed. There have been similar cases like the Brock Turner case throughout our lifetime and there hasn’t been a significant change in prevalence rates.
Audience Question: When victims ask what would you do if you were me, what do you think an appropriate response is?
Victoria Riechers: I think one way to respond would be something like, “Unfortunately, I can’t make that decision for you because I am not you. I don’t know what you’ve been through. I don’t have the same experience as you. It’s really important that you make this decision yourself. I can provide you with the resources out there and different options, but it’s really important that you make this decision yourself.”
Lindsay Ashworth: Like Victoria said, reframe it and acknowledge that everyone’s different, what’s best for me might not be best for you and vice versa.