Police Officer Training: Dealing with Sexual Assault
Police training includes examining and discard negative attitudes towards victims. In the past, instead of apprehending and prosecuting sexual assailants, police sometimes decided that the victim was responsible for what happened. Law enforcement officers need to discard any lingering misbeliefs they’re harboring about the nature of sexual assaults. Most victims of sexual assault are women, but sexual assaults can also occur in gay and transgender relationships.
Police training needs to include attitudes towards sexual assault and its victims. Sexual assault presents special challenges to law enforcement. The alleged victim and suspect may have conflicting stories, and often there are no witnesses to help police sort out what really happened. Technology has been a real boon to rape investigations. DNA and other evidence from a “rape kit” can help determine whether a crime was committed and who the perpetrator was. The medical exam and evidence collection are complex processes that can take several hours. Evidence is then sent to a lab for processing that can cost a thousand dollars or more.
Law enforcement has been using rape kits in the 1970s, and DNA testing was added in the 1980s, making sexual assault cases easier to investigate and prosecute—or so it would seem. But the results have been disappointing. Since 2013, thousands of untested rape kits have been found gathering dust in forensic storage facilities.
Congress has passed laws requiring the Department of Justice to oversee testing and allocate funds for these unprocessed kits. But the backlog persists. Why?
Part of the problem lies in mistaken attitudes about sex that pervade many areas of modern life—including criminal justice. Myths and misunderstandings create problems for victims of sexual assault that go far beyond the problem of untested kits.
Police officers need to re-examine their beliefs about how men and women handle their sexuality so that the sexual assault allegations can be investigated with sensitivity and professionalism.
Here are questions every officer needs to think about:
- Who is responsible for setting limits in a sexual situation?
One common mistake is the assumption that men are supposed to pressure women for sex—and women are supposed to resist. This “boys will be boys” philosophy makes the woman the guilty party if a date turns ugly.
Sex has to be a mutual choice. It’s wrong to expect a woman to overpower a persistent man who may be bigger and stronger than she is—and then blame her if she is sexually assaulted.
- Is it okay for women to attract attention to themselves?
Another widespread (and wrong) belief is that a woman who makes herself attractive to the opposite sex is secretly inviting a man to overpower her—the “she asked for it” excuse for rape.
Women have long used makeup and clothing to appeal to men. Dancing, dim lights, and alcohol have long been used to create romantic settings for relationships to develop. An eye-catching dress or provocative dance style does not imply sexual consent.
- Does “no” secretly mean “try harder”?
Another common misbelief is that a woman’s “no” means “yes”—that women enjoy teasing men, leading them on, and being overpowered by men. Everyone has a legal right to make choices about sex. Touching without consent can potentially constitute an assault and result in arrest.
- Do women secretly hope that a man will be forceful?
It’s an old (and vicious) joke: A sexual assault victim should just “lie back and enjoy it.” Rape is dismissed as sexual ardor that got out of control, and the woman should just make the best of it.
Rape is a crime of power, not sex. The rapist has two payoffs: inflicting humiliation and pain, and exercising control. There is no common ground between the crime of rape and the pleasure of consensual sex.
How do these misbeliefs affect police work? Problems begin when a victim is interviewed by an officer asks why she didn’t fight harder, why she’s so carefully made up, why she’s wearing a dress that shows off her curves.
The problems are compounded when an agency decides not to test her rape kit because “we already have a suspect” (who somehow is never charged) or, conversely, “we don’t have a suspect” (ignoring the availability of DNA databases).
Recent publicity about rape kits languishing in storage has led to testing of hundreds of kits—and arrests, in some cases, of serial rapists who went free after inflicting suffering on countless victims.
Law enforcement can—and should—lead the fight against sexual violence against any victims, including men and women who are gay and transgender. One important step is to discard ideas and beliefs that justify mistreatment of any human being under the mistaken belief that sexual assault is “love gone wrong.” No, it isn’t.