Sex­ual as­sault: How much has re­ally changed?

Af­ter what seemed like a pos­i­tive rev­o­lu­tion in the way we think and talk about sex­ual as­sault, the last few weeks in the US have felt like tum­bling back in time.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus - By ROBIN ABCARIAN

ONE Thurs­day morn­ing, Karen Pomer and I re­turned to Vir­ginia Av­enue in Santa Mon­ica, a place that held many trau­matic mem­o­ries for her.

It was on this block in Oc­to­ber 1995 that Karen was raped in her car by a man who had ab­ducted her at gun­point as she ar­rived home one late evening af­ter a rally against do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. This was shortly af­ter the mur­der trial of O.J. Simp­son, who had bru­talised his ex-wife, Ni­cole Brown Simp­son, dur­ing their mar­riage. Spousal abuse was on every­one’s mind.

When her rapist left her to re­lieve him­self, Karen es­caped, and ran scream­ing to the first home she could get to. She pounded on the door but no one an­swered.

The gun­man re­cap­tured her, took her back to her car, drove to an al­ley south of Pico Boule­vard and con­tin­ued as­sault­ing her un­til dawn.

In Fe­bru­ary 1996, Karen and I re­turned to Vir­ginia Av­enue.

She was one of the first rape vic­tims I had ever writ­ten about who was not only will­ing to be named, but wanted to be named. To­gether, we de­cided to try to get some an­swers. Why had neigh­bors not opened their door to a scream­ing woman?

It turned out, they were too scared. Neigh­bors told us they called 911, and fig­ured the cops would take care of things. But the po­lice who re­sponded never found Karen. They did not search a wide enough swath of the city; they never looked south of Pico.

Karen re­ported her as­sault right away. She cor­rectly iden­ti­fied her sus­pected rapist from po­lice pho­tos, but de­tec­tives never tried to find him. The Santa Mon­ica po­lice de­tec­tive as­signed to her case was not only dis­mis­sive, she ended up in prison for shoot­ing her mar­ried po­lice of­fi­cer boyfriend. A prose­cu­tor told Karen that she would never be a vic­tim be­cause she knows karate.

The way Karen’s case was han­dled was a stain on the rep­u­ta­tion of the Santa Mon­ica Po­lice Depart­ment. More than five years would pass be­fore the rapist, who had been in and out of prison for other crimes, was caught. He’s now in prison for life for a litany of other felonies.

The sys­tem failed Karen. But so, re­ally, did the cul­ture.

One of the neigh­bors who opened her door to us in 1996 was po­lite but dev­as­tat­ing.

She’d told us she’d read in the news that the scream­ing had come from a young woman who was be­ing raped.

“We were won­der­ing,” she asked Karen, “what were you do­ing out so late?”

If you have not ex­pe­ri­enced the sting of vic­tim blam­ing, it’s hard to un­der­stand how much it hurts.

I’ll never for­get the look on Karen’s face as her eyes filled with tears.

For those of us who have watched what seemed like a pos­i­tive rev­o­lu­tion in the way we think and talk about sex­ual as­sault, the last few weeks have felt like tum­bling back in time.

Af­ter at­test­ing to the cred­i­bil­ity of Chris­tine Blasey Ford, who ac­cused Brett Ka­vanaugh of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing her when she was 15 and he was 17, Pres­i­dent Trump vi­ciously ripped into Ford at one of his ral­lies. He mocked her in­abil­ity to re­mem­ber all the de­tails of the night she said she was at­tacked by Ka­vanaugh, who now sits on the US Supreme Court.

“How did you get home?” Trump said, his voice drip­ping sar­casm. “I don’t re­mem­ber. How did you get there? I don’t re­mem­ber. Where is the place? I don’t re­mem­ber. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

There is noth­ing un­usual about that. “It’s so weird try­ing to re­mem­ber all this stuff,” Karen told me as we tried to fig­ure out which door she had pounded on the night of her rape. “You for­get things.”

In an­other blow to vic­tims who step for­ward, First Lady Me­la­nia Trump told ABC News dur­ing a trip to Africa that women de­serve to be heard, but only un­der cer­tain con­di­tions.

“We need to have re­ally hard ev­i­dence, if you ac­cused of some­thing; show the ev­i­dence,” the first lady said. “I do stand with women, but we need to show the ev­i­dence. You can­not just say to some­body ‘I was sex­u­ally as­saulted,’ or ‘You did that to me.’”

This is not stand­ing with women; this is stand­ing with per­pe­tra­tors.

I called Gail Abar­banel, who founded the Santa Mon­ica Rape Treat­ment Cen­ter 40 years ago. Abar­banel is a soft-spo­ken, sin­gle-minded ad­vo­cate for sex­ual as­sault vic­tims who has pi­o­neered a rev­o­lu­tion in the way adult and child vic­tims are treated.

“I don’t know what ‘hard ev­i­dence’ is,” Abar­banel said. “Rape is a vi­o­lent crime, but most vic­tims don’t have se­ri­ous vis­i­ble in­juries. The in­juries are in­vis­i­ble, for the most part. And they hardly ever have wit­nesses. Al­most never.”

Over the last four decades, Abar­banel has wit­nessed and pushed for many im­prove­ments in the way the med­i­cal and jus­tice sys­tems treat sex­ual as­sault.

“There used to be so many dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices,” she said. “Rape was such a stigma. You were dam­aged goods. Hos­pi­tals treated you like a low pri­or­ity – the nurses would come out to the wait­ing room and say ‘Where’s the rape?’

“If you re­ported your rape to the po­lice, you be­came a sus­pect and could be forced to take a lie de­tec­tor test, or sub­mit to a rape exam. Vic­tims would be put on trial, the fo­cus would be on their char­ac­ter and be­hav­ior and sex­ual his­tory. You had to prove you re­sisted your at­tacker be­cause we had re­sis­tance re­quire­ments in our rape laws.”

And then, “one of the most dis­crim­i­na­tory things we had,” Abar­banel said, “were the in­struc­tions the judge had to give the jury: ‘Rape is a charge that is eas­ily made and hard to de­fend against, so ex­am­ine the tes­ti­mony of this wit­ness with cau­tion.’”

“We’ve changed a lot,” Abar­banel said. “But it’s very hard to change pri­vate at­ti­tudes and all these mis­con­cep­tions.”

What was she do­ing out so late? Why did she wait so long to re­port this? Why can’t she re­mem­ber ev­ery sin­gle de­tail? Why was she wear­ing that? Where is the “hard ev­i­dence”?

Karen Pomer, 63, a long­time so­cial jus­tice ac­tivist, has con­tin­ued to fight for vic­tims’ rights. She is on the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee for the sec­ond #MeToo Sur­vivors’ March, which is sched­uled for Nov 10 in Hol­ly­wood. “Please don’t for­get to men­tion that,” she said.

How could I? We in the US have got a pres­i­dent who boasts about as­sault­ing women, a first lady who hasn’t got a clue about sex­ual as­sault and a Se­nate that just put a man cred­i­bly ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault on the Supreme Court.

The work is far from done. – Los An­ge­les Times/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

The fight goes on: The work for sex­ual as­sault and rape vic­tims’ rights is far from done.

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