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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the US Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) compiled a series of articles on sexual assault awareness, prevention, and intervention. These articles not only provide a small glimpse into understanding the problem, but also offer promising practices and available resources.
The following article provides a brief primer into sexual assault and the role of law enforcement.
Understanding Sexual Assault
According to the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), “sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”1 This definition includes forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.2 The wider umbrella of sexual violence can also encompass sexual harassment and nonconsensual sharing of private images.
Although sexual assault is typically associated with female victims and survivors, the victimization can span the full spectrum including male and LGBTQ+ victims and survivors. Victims and survivors of sexual assault can also vary in age, from infants to seniors. 3
Based on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey it is estimated that, in the United States, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced some form of sexual violence during their lifetime.4 Out of the women included in the study, approximately 8.5 million women (1 in 14) reported a completed rape prior to the age of 18.5 Furthermore , the numbers rise considerably when looking at race and ethnicity.6
The prevalence of sexual violence increases with disenfranchised and vulnerable populations. For example, further details from the CDC study reveal victimization of sexual violence in the LGBTQ+ community at increased rates: 13.1 percent of lesbians have been raped in their lifetime, while 46.4 percent of lesbians and 40.2 percent of gay men have been victims of sexual violence other than rape.7 When looking at the victimization rates within tribal communities, 56.1 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women and 27.5 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.8
Location is also an important factor and college campuses are another place where sexual assault can occur .9 One research study published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that across nine college campuses, approximately 21 percent of undergraduate women experienced sexual assault since entering college.10
With these staggering numbers, there is still a real issue of under-reporting. Many victims do not report sexual violence for a variety of reasons – from shame to fear and more.
The impact of sexual violence leaves emotional, psychological, and potentially physical scars. Research has shown that the prevalence of physical and mental health conditions increase when a person survives sexual violence, stalking, or physical violence by an intimate partner.11 These conditions can include asthma, diabetes, and chronic pain. Considering this research into sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence, the CDC states that these issues continue to be a critical public health problem.12
Law Enforcement Implications
Law enforcement plays a major role in sexual assault prevention and intervention, including bringing awareness to this problem.
Law enforcement can proactively address sexual assault by assisting with education, community skill building, and partnering with community and nonprofit stakeholders. In addition, law enforcement should use trauma-informed practices to support victims and survivors to lessen harm and prevent re-victimization. Law enforcement can partner with local nonprofit organizations or educational institutions to educate community members, especially youth, on identifying risky situations, understanding consent, engaging in bystander interventions (when appropriate), understanding implicit bias and what constitutes as harassment.
The series of articles in this special issue of the CP Dispatch highlight law enforcement implications from prevention to response and resources.
Julia Hotlemeyer and Michael Rizzo, from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), offer available resources for law enforcement in “Understanding, Investigating, and Responding to Sexual Assault.” The You Have Options Program is introduced in “Responding to Sexual Assault: The You Have Options Program” by COPS Office program manager Sarah Estill.
In “Arkansas’ Criminal Justice Institute Offers Invaluable Sexual Assault Training to Rural Agencies,” Dr. Cheryl May describes two training courses specifically available to rural agencies. Finally, “Resources from the Office on Violence Against Women” provides an overview of OVW resources and example projects.
In addition to the resources that are covered in the other articles, the COPS Office developed the following resources:
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we can all take part in the prevention of and response to sexual assault victims and survivors. Hopefully, this special issue of the CP Dispatch will provide useful information to help either begin or continue the conversations.
Nazmia E.A. Comrie
Senior Program Specialist, The COPS Office
3 See https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/2012-03/publications_SVlaterlife_Guide.pdf for more details on sexual violence in later life
9 See http://changingourcampus.org/ and https://www.justice.gov/ovw/protecting-students-sexual-assault#_edn1 for more information related to college campuses
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