Our Opinion: ‘Start by believing’ sexual assault victims, and offer support

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SDLqCarjacked? Should’ve thought twice before driving that luxury sedan through a rough neighborhood.”

“Intruder in your home? Why on earth didn’t you install a security system?”

Those statements are plainly absurd, yet victims of sexual assault routinely face similar interrogatives, encountering doubt and suspicion when they notify family members and friends that they’ve been attacked.

The Wesley Shelter, Wilson’s nonprofit domestic violence and sexual assault response agency, is working to change unenlightened attitudes about rape and sex abuse that result in victim-blaming. It stems from a warped mentality that holds victims responsible for assailants’ actions.

Just as no one faults a store clerk when the cash register is raided in a holdup, no one should entertain the notion that a rape victim deserved to be violated or somehow contributed to the attack.

“Victims should never, ever be blamed for sexual assault,” said Lynne White, the Wesley Shelter’s executive director.

It doesn’t matter what kind of clothing a person is wearing or whether he or she chooses to drink alcoholic beverages. Those details have no bearing on the nature of the crime committed.

Before blame often comes skepticism. White said some victims are afraid to come forward because loved ones may not believe they have been sexually assaulted.

“We want to create a culture in our community where people can feel safe to report this crime and we always believe the victim,” she said.

To that end, the Wesley Shelter invited Wilsonians to sign a public pledge Tuesday afternoon in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. With the stoke of a pen, dozens vowed to “start by believing” sex abuse victims and offer support rather than doubt or blame.

False rape claims are exceedingly rare; it’s far more likely that a sexual assault occurs and goes unreported than a story is fabricated. The accused still have due-process protections and the right to a trial by a jury of their peers.

Casting doubt on the victims who courageously come forward only discourages them from reporting sexual assault for fear of being shamed, judged and criticized. That cycle of silence harms the community by leaving violent sexual predators free to continue their crimes.

“We want to see victims become survivors,” White said. “If you create a system of support and belief, you will get more people who feel safe to report what happened to them and they won’t be further victimized.”

We applaud those who signed the Wesley Shelter’s pledge and encourage everyone in our community to “start by believing” those who report sexual violence. It will send a message of solidarity and, ultimately, make Wilson a kinder and safer place.

Survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence can call the Wesley Shelter at 252-291-2344 for assistance. The line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.