This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Start By Believing!
How I Got Involved
In 2016, I was invited to speak at the End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) conference. It was a huge honor and one I had been working towards for some years. Anyone working on behalf of sexual assault survivors will tell you EVAWI is among the top U.S. conferences in the field, perhaps even the world.
At the conference, I was introduced to the Start By Believing (SBB) Campaign. Like many others there, I took a photo and had it posted up on their website. I gave my talk to several hundred forensic investigators, prosecutors, and other justice system folks (think “top of the SVU” chain) and returned home.
I knew what the sex crimes and domestic violence landscape was like in the Antelope Valley area of Los Angeles, where I live. It’s called the most stressful place to live in CA, has one of the highest national rates of hate crime and abuse due to race and gender, and is a highly conservative political zone with little support for women’s issues. I kept looking at that photo and decided that I needed to bring the work I had been doing nationally and internationally closer to home.
I began talking about SBB during presentations, at local events, to others in the community interested in the same issues, basically anyone who would listen. During the summer of 2018, after two years without much traction, I was asked to speak to a group of local agencies under the Department of Mental Health’s “Health Neighborhood” program about my work. I mentioned SBB and it took! By November, a small coalition formed, made up of the local hospital rape crisis unit, a victims advocacy group, the Health Neighborhood, and myself. Our Start By Believing Campaign Kick-Off made the Channel 11 news and local print media, with the wonderful support of U.S. Representative Katie Hill, just prior to her election to congress.
Since then, we’ve picked up more members, political support, and community interest. And the Antelope Valley region of California, long known for its high rate of sex crime, now boasts the largest Start By Believing campaign in the state!
What Is Start By Believing?
Start By Believing is a national campaign, a philosophy, and a social awareness challenge to the community with a simple message: When anyone says they are a victim of sexualized violence, verbal or physical, harassment, abuse, or rape, we will listen to them and believe them. It’s a systemic change in how our society has historically treated victims of sexualized violence.
Despite all the social and media influence that would have you believe otherwise, victims of rape and sexual assault do not lie. The concept of “false reporting” is largely a myth and one I address in my work.
The basic idea of SBB is this. When any of us are the victim of a crime; a home invasion, injured in a hit-and-run, or robbed at gunpoint, the typical response from family, friends, and law enforcement is support, empathy, and compassion, not questions or an interrogation of what we did or didn’t do to cause the crime.
If my friend is held up at gunpoint, my response isn’t, “Well, you really wanted to give him your money, didn’t you?” or “Were you clear that you didn’t want to be robbed?” When someone’s house is broken into we don’t say, “What did you expect? Your front door looks really tempting. You were kind of asking for it.” Yet routinely, victims of sexualized violence are subject to questioning and doubts as though they were the criminal or brought their rape or abuse on themselves.
To those who say, “Hasn’t #MeToo changed all that? Everyone believes women now,” I reply that the #MeToo movement only started gaining major traction in late 2017. Law enforcement still routinely fails sexual assault victims, many people still ask humiliating questions about what she wore or did “to get raped,” sexually active women are still told that if they kept their legs closed they wouldn’t have been attacked, and many still don’t believe rape applies to sex workers, even when they are minors. Eighty percent of sex crimes still go unreported. Only three percent of all filed rape charges lead to any type of conviction, and not necessarily jail time for the rapist. As progressive a state as California is, until recently it was written into the law that a woman had to physically fight or be unconscious for a charge to even be considered rape. Husbands could rape their wives with impunity. Though many of these laws have improved, many haven’t, and juries remain largely tainted by those dangerous ideas.
Start By Believing is simple, yet powerful. If all people adopted its mission, reporting a sex crime would no longer be a source of shame, doubt, and guilt.
Law enforcement departments that have adopted the Start By Believing philosophy have higher reporting rates, better information gathering, and improved prosecution rates because this shift in approach creates more safety and comfort for victims to come forward. This helps law enforcement gather the evidence they need towards prosecution and conduct better investigations.
It is an ongoing source of frustration to law enforcement that victims don't come forward, yet when they do, they are often questioned and scrutinized as if they were the criminal themselves. When a community commits to Start By Believing, it shifts the blame from victim to perpetrator. And justice is better served.
What’s Next for SBB Antelope Valley?
Our goal right now is to continue to build and expand the Antelope Valley Coalition to join with other SoCal SBB communities and we are currently in talks with the national and Los Angeles-based efforts. One of my personal goals is to turn California into the ninth (Missouri was just named eight) national SBB state and I am starting to believe this is doable.
With the improved understanding SBB offers, sex crime investigators can do a better and more compassionate job of interviewing victims. Sexual Assault Awareness LLC can bring this training home.
Last month, which happened to be Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I spoke at various sites across Los Angeles County about SBB and what happens to the brain and body during sexual assault. Last weekend, I hosted a table and spoke to attendees of the Antelope Valley Poppy Festival, quite a few of whom signed a pledge to Start by Believing themselves (pictured above). I also gave a community talk on myths and misunderstandings around sexualized violence alongside other fantastic local experts and Valley Oasis, the Antelope Valley Domestic Violence Council. Thanks to a recent grant from the California Mental Health Services Authority and Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, we are hoping to do more events like these throughout the rest of 2019.
And, of course, the individual trauma work I do with victims of sexual assault here in my practice where I always start by believing, often even when my clients doubt themselves. Please join me in promoting the message of SBB: When any victim reports sexualized violence of any kind, listen to them, support them, and believe them!
To learn more visit: https://www.startbybelieving.org/