Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

‘The Second Rape’ of sexual assault victims: Sophomore shares experience to open dialogue on systemic issues in rape-reporting process

Months after going through an interrogation so traumatic she dubbed it a “second rape” in a blog post, sophomore Heather Berlin went public Wednesday, detailing her experiences in reporting her own sexual assault while at Washington University.

While sexual assault happens at this school as much as at any school in the country, according to Kim Webb, the University’s assistant director for sexual assault, available statistics fail to reflect the stories that victims typically hold to themselves.

Berlin decided to take her story to the public sphere for the sake of people who go through similar experiences. After she opened up in a Facebook status, her post had about 200 likes as of Wednesday night.

According to Berlin’s blog entry, when she went to report the rape to the University City Police Department, the officer she spoke with said that hers was not a “real rape,” implying it was her fault and that she was lucky not to have ended up bruised or incapable of walking.

“I was prepared to talk about what had happened, but when the detective was talking to me, a lot of the conversation was focused on victim blaming and rape myths that didn’t pertain to consent,” Berlin said. “People don’t talk much about the aftermath of a sexual assault. I think that going into the reporting process, I didn’t expect it to be easy, but I didn’t expect it to be like that.”

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 60 percent of sexual assaults go unreported nationwide; the issue is not only that many struggle to label the crimes against them as assault but the hostility individuals face on coming forward.

In Student Life’s 2014 sex survey, 34.85 percent of students surveyed reported that they have been pressured to engage in sexual acts they were not comfortable engaging in while only 10.78 percent of students surveyed reported that they had been sexually assaulted. An additional 8.82 percent responded that they were not sure.

When it comes to labeling experiences as sexual assault, Washington University students are no different than other Americans. While there were 10 sexual assaults reported to Washington University in 2012—the most recent year for which statistics are available—there were no related arrests or referrals that year.

The true stories of sexual assault and the victims typically come out only during rare, intimate events such as Take Back the Night, a vigil held every spring during which students share their experiences, often traumatic, to a group of their peers. But the community-wide struggle to aid victims as they deal with the trauma of assault and the often similar hardship of reporting or attempting to prosecute their attackers is yearlong and ongoing.

But this can pose a problem for victims looking for others who have similar experiences.

“It took a long time to find information about actual sexual assault interrogations because when you Google it, what comes up is the victims who are lying,” Berlin said. “This isn’t something [the police] want people to know about, but it’s something the public deserves to know about, and it’s something that needs to be changed, especially if people are trying to encourage sexual assault reports.”

“This is not as rare as people like to hope it is,” she added. “Maybe I’m coming forward, but it happens to so many more people.”

Dr. Tonya Edmond, associate professor in the Brown School of Social Work, said that mistreatment of the kind Berlin described is not uncommon as law enforcement officials are not trained for sensitivity.

“We have lower reporting rates because people are often mistreated in that process,” she added. “In asking someone to pursue filing charges, you’re asking them to subject themselves to a level of abuse in a way that is only compounding the psychological impact.”

She also placed some of the blame on the reputation of defining sexual assault.

“I think that there’s a big stigma and charge to the language of sexual assault,” Edmond said. “Particularly in sexual assaults that happen between people who know each other, there’s a tendency to minimize and reframe it unless there are pretty extreme levels of physical violence, which is not generally [common] in acquaintance rape situations.”

Jami Ake, assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, agreed that labeling an encounter as a sexual assault is difficult in itself for victims, adding that the underreporting of sexual assault may come from a misunderstanding of how sexual assault is defined due to its portrayal in popular culture.

“Calling what happened to you sexual violence by any stretch is a pretty scary step,” Ake said. “It sort of puts you in this place where you have to acknowledge that you’re a survivor or a victim of something, and people don’t want to do that.”

“We live in a culture where rape and sexual violence have these narratives around them that we see on [crime shows like] ‘Law & Order: [Special Victims Unit],’” she added. “It’s really hard then to understand what’s happened to you in that category because what we see on TV is so extreme.”

But she said that just increasing reporting rates should not be the first goal.

“I don’t know that we’ve set up the world to be a very safe place to report [sexual assault] at any level,” Ake said. “Maybe the goal at first shouldn’t be to report [sexual assault] to the institution—maybe the goal should be helping people who have had these experiences feel the safest they could possibly feel.”

Kim Webb, assistant director of sexual assault and community health services, noted that self-blame and community connections work as silencing agents as well, especially in circumstances where the attacker is one of the victim’s friends.

“There’s kind of this nebulous idea of what sexual assault is…[but] most of what happens on campus is between people who know each other,” Webb said. “There’s also some confusion in trying to reconcile how someone they know and trusted would do something that they would define as sexual assault.”

Freshman Annie Shi agreed that many people might erroneously consider being pressured into sex distinct from sexual assault.

“I think the term ‘sexually assaulted’ leads to a victim mentality,” Shi said. “The term ‘forced into sex’ isn’t as demeaning.”

Faculty said the best way to move forward may be to empower bystanders to intervene through efforts like the Green Dot program, which offers training to help people recognize the warning signs that may lead to assault and advice on how to respond. Edmond said she has been excited by the progress of the involvement of men in discussions about sexual assault but added that education efforts have failed to achieve their purpose.

“We don’t put a sufficient number of resources into staffing programs that would allow us to do the level of prevention education that is needed,” Edmond said. “We rely too heavily on the implementation of those services by volunteers and students, which is great to have their involvement, but it’s not sufficient.”

“We have a pretty poor history of holding perpetrators accountable on college campuses,” she added. “We tend to make it more of an evaluation of the character of the victim and kind of have a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude….if we’re not holding someone accountable, we’re leaving a predator on the loose on our campus.”

A spokesperson for the University City Police Department could not be reached Wednesday night.

“I don’t think anything will change if no one says anything about it,” Berlin said. “I know how hard it was after the fact. I didn’t want to talk about it at all, and if I didn’t want to talk about it, that’s why no one hears about this. I want a conversation to be started.”

“I hope that the people we’re supposed to trust to help deliver justice are given better resources so they can help make that possible” she added. “I hope that people [who suffer these crimes] know they’re not alone.”

Correction: The original version of this article attributed a statement to Berlin that the investigation into her case was ongoing and impeded her from sharing more information about the assault. The article has been modified to reflect that she did not make that statement in her interview. While Washington University does not disclose any details about sexual assault investigations, Berlin affirms that the investigation is closed. Student Life apologizes for the error.

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  • get real says:

    To the person complaining about this article: The respondent was expelled from WashU. Before you criticize Berlin on whether or not she knows what she experienced, educate yourself. There is a reason very few survivors come forward, have you ever thought of looking into why that is? Heather Berlin is brave. She’s advocating for others who go through the reporting process…very admirable.

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  • Reality check says:

    Wow, congrats, comment dude. You’ve very happily fallen prey to the idiotic myth about people lying about being raped. It happens just about as often as lying about other crimes does- somewhere between 2 and 8 percent (the 8 percent was from a study with a much smaller sample size, so it’s likely to be lower than that).

    Seriously, why would ANYONE want to misreport rape? Have you actually looked at what happens to the victims? Horrible, invasive, deeply personal questioning, harassment, loss of friends, loss of social support? The perpetrator tends to get off much, much easier. Come on. There is literally no reason- especially with her name attached to it!- that she’d do this and not be telling the truth.

    Heather Berlin is STRONG and brave and I admire her so much for being able to write this and call it her own.

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  • Natalia says:

    To the person whose comment is titled “Come on guys:”

    Whoa, you’re totally right! Let’s go to a murderer and ask him if he really did, in fact, strangle his victim to death, and she didn’t just fall into a plastic bag because she was drunk. And make sure we have a few sentences from his side in our report. Because who knows, maybe it was all a big misunderstanding.

    Oh, wait, that didn’t make sense, did it?

    Oops, that man who touched my son at a park went uncharged because I could not prove he did anything wrong. But no, the public is not in danger because he really is not a pedophile. Of course, he hangs out by the playgrounds all day, but hey if someone loses sight of their child and something happens, it’s their fault isn’t it?

    Oh wait, that did not make sense either.

    If you do or do not believe Berlin, that is up to you. But this editorial is called “The Second Rape of Sexual Assault Victims.” This woman who has come forward about her ordeal is not just trying to shed light on what happened to her, but on the process afterwards. A process, I hope, that you are never faced with. Being told that you are at fault for being violated, mistreated, and abused, by the very people who are supposed to protect you, is indeed a betrayal. This editorial is not about ascertaining who is at fault, but looking at the criminal and judicial system in place. No matter what, anyone reporting assault should not be met with anything other than acceptance. It is not for you nor I nor the police to decide who is at fault. That is up to the jury (which is an entirely different yet equally disturbing issue).

    Basically, I am trying to say…back off. Do not attack this survivor. Do not attack any survivor on the validity of their claim. Because that is unacceptable.

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  • Andrew says:

    C’mon guys, really? The comments here are incredibly disappointing. I would expect better from the Wash U community. “Just because someone claims sexual assault doesn’t mean they were.” These attitudes blame the victim, and perpetuate the rape culture we live in. Learn to understand why your comments are so damaging, and grow up.

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  • Mike says:

    wow. you managed to write an editorial about the lack of clarity surrounding the definition of sexual assault without defining sexual assault. pushing forward, i see

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  • Come on guys says:

    This is shoddy reporting; you’re presenting Berlin’s case as if she were raped, and subsequently abused by the legal mechanisms in place. The fact of the matter is we don’t know. For all we know she wasn’t sexually assaulted. Just because someone claims sexual assault, even if they believe they were sexually assaulted, doesn’t mean they were. This goes for victims of all crimes, of course, and it’s your job as reporters to do more than regurgitate the opinion of one, heavily-biased party.

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    • Sarah says:

      I’ve thought a lot about how to respond to this comment. I’ve decided to offer some resources. The actual statistic of false allegations is between 2-8%. Statistically making it incredibly unlikely that this is the case, even if the experience weren’t believable as it is. (http://www.nsvrc.org/publications/articles/false-reports-moving-beyond-issue-successfully-investigate-and-prosecute-non-s)

      Here are some more statistics (multiple trigger warnings apply):
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/50-facts-rape_b_2019338.html

      http://www.rainn.org/statistics

      I think that views like this, while claiming to seek ‘truth’ are often damaging and close-minded. The essay Heather Berlin wrote shows incredible strength and bravery. I support her fully and think that her actions are incredibly good and selfless. Please be considerate in your thoughts and words.

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    • What says:

      I feel like this argument is unfair. That would mean that any reporting on any crime is “shoddy reporting” because with any crime, even if they are believed to have been victims of whatever, doesn’t mean they were. Why would everybody in the world need to see indisputable evidence in order for sexual assault to be believed? That is not your decision. The evidence was provided to the Judicial Board, and they found the perpetrator to be guilty.

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    • Dan C. says:

      Your standard of skepticism is entirely inappropriate for a phenomenon that is 1) as pervasive as sexual assault (see those statistics from our campus? Maybe they’re actually real experiences?!), and 2) accompanied by all the stigma, complicated emotions, unsupportive reactions, etc. that are the subject of this article. Also, who are you to claim that Berlin doesn’t know what she experienced?

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