Believing sexual assault survivors


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Community members now receive encouragement to support survivors by simply believing them when they say they have been sexually assaulted.

The Johnson County Sexual Assault Response Team, a coalition of several agencies — including assault nurse examiners, rape-victim advocates, and local police — launched the Start by Believing campaign locally during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The movement started in 2010 through End Violence Against Women International. It’s based on studies saying a negative response from the first person a victim tells, often a family member or friend, might deter reaching out for additional help.

“The idea is that it’s so difficult for the victim to come forward, and they need support,” said Pamela Terrill, the coordinator of the University of Iowa Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program. “They need affirmation, and this acts as a support program and awareness campaign.”

The program discourages blaming victims and teaches community members how to respond appropriately.

“If you say you were robbed, no one asks why you were flashing your money out in the open,” Terrill said.

Britte Garrett, a Rape Victim Advocacy Program certified sexual-abuse advocate, said one of the best features of the movement is its straightforwardness.

“It’s a great campaign because it’s easy and simple, but it makes a huge difference for survivors,” Garrett said.

She said RVAP did some publicity for the campaign in the past, but she and the sexual assault response team decided to give it a full effort. They noticed many survivors experienced adverse reactions from their friends and family after telling them about the assault.

“We want people who encounter them to know they don’t have to have the magic thing to say,” Garrett said.

Instead, she says all they have to do is to believe them.

The Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, and UI police have made the pledge.

In addition, the UI police released a list of 11 guarantees to sexual-assault survivors.

For example, the police guarantee says they will meet victims in the location of their choice, not prejudge them, not blame them for the assault, not give certain specific information to the media, and not pursue alcohol or drug charges.

“We’ve always done it, but now it’s written in black and white,” said David Visin, the interim vice president for the UI police.

Visin said believing the accuser does not compromise the neutrality of an investigation.

He said the statement is intended to be a tool for both the survivors and friends of survivors looking for the next step. 

“We really want to keep this on the forefront for months and years,” Terrill said.

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