This post is the second in a series that provides deeper context for the findings of the 2020 Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota report, a research collaboration between the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy. The latest data show that sexual violence against women, girls, and LGBTQ+ people remains a pervasive problem in Minnesota. We could fill Target Field almost 18 times with the number of Minnesota women who have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking. University of Minnesota sociology PhD candidate Amber Joy Powell digs into why sexual violence is so entrenched—and what policymakers can do about it.

On October 10, 2020, Minneapolis community organizers and survivors unveiled one of the first public memorials for sexual assault victims in Boom Island Park. The memorial stands as a visual reminder of the persistence of sexual violence in the lives of Minnesota women and girls, 42 percent of whom have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Most victims experience their first sexual assault before turning 25, affirming the importance of early adolescent education of sexual consent. Survivors of sexual violence often experience post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns following incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

While recent social movements such as #MeToo have raised public awareness of sexual violence, significant institutional roadblocks shape victim disclosure of sexual abuse. Anti-rape advocates argue that social institutions, including schools, universities, and workplaces, promote a culture where women’s and girl’s everyday experiences of sexual harassment and abuse are normalized. The Minnesota Student Survey reports that 15 percent of high school girls have been pressured into sexual acts. Several studies suggest that while girls experience unwanted advances as uncomfortable, they often downplay this pressure by claiming that boys “do it to everyone” and it’s no “big deal.” Given this cultural context, it is unsurprising that college women often do not label their experiences as sexual assault, tell friends and family, or report to administrative or legal authorities. One recent study found that college women face disempowerment by the “victim” label, barriers in peer socialization, and disruptions to their academic performance and extracurricular activities.

An institutional analysis of sexual violence also links girls’ sexual harassment and assault to broader issues of neighborhood inequality and cumulative disadvantage. Low-income Black and Brown girls living in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods are subject to “coercive sexual environments,” or neighborhood spaces where “harassment, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation of women and even very young girls become part of everyday life.” Girls living within these sexually coercive environments experience higher levels of catcalls, sexual innuendos, and unwanted touching.

Limits of the Criminal Legal System in Addressing Sexual Violence

Common misconceptions, or “rape myths,” about sexual harassment and assault that further impact victim reporting to institutional authorities. These myths suggest men cannot control themselves (particularly under the influence of alcohol), women say “no” when they really mean “yes,” and women’s clothing provokes men to pursue them. Friends, family, and legal officials (i.e., attorneys, judges, police) often shift blame to women themselves instead of their assailants for the abuse. These myths also place expectations on victims to prove that they verbally and physically resisted their perpetrators and show physical evidence. Consequently, survivors often hesitate to disclose incidents of sexual violence that fail to meet the standard of what Susan Estrich calls “real rapes,” which occur when a male stranger jumps out of a dark alley and aggressively attacks a female victim. Despite this common narrative, the stranger rape myth fails to describe the majority of sexual assaults, which are committed by someone the victim knows.

Most women and girls do not report incidents of sexual assault to law enforcement because police often do not believe their claims, blame them, and fail to effectively investigate their case. A 2018 Star Tribune investigation of 1,400 sexual assault cases from 2015 to 2016 showed that roughly 75 percent of cases never went to prosecutors. Prosecutors were less likely to charge sexual assault cases that involved victims’ non-compliance with prosecutor wishes, a prior relationship between the victim and their perpetrator, alcohol, and delayed reporting. In the rare event that a case is brought to trial, defense attorneys frequently attempt to dismantle victims’ credibility, often through references to their sexual history and moral character. Only 8 percent of reported cases in the Star Tribune investigation led to a conviction.

Forgotten Survivors

Despite the success of #MeToo in raising public awareness about sexual violence, activists argue that its focus should not have shifted solely to white cisgendered, heterosexual women. Community organizer Tarana Burke founded the MeToo movement in 2006 to highlight the unique structural barriers women and girls of color encounter as sexual assault survivors. In Minnesota, Native women are most likely to experience sexual violence. Historically, Native and other women of color encounter additional barriers to reporting sexual violence such as low levels of trust in law enforcement and fear of “airing dirty laundry” to white service workers, who may perpetuate racist stereotypes against men of color. LGBTQ women, girls, and gender nonbinary persons of color, who face an increased risk of sexual harassment and assault, are less likely than their white peers to seek police help due to intersecting systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.

Often excluded from mainstream discourses on public safety, (formerly) incarcerated survivors have shed light on sexual violence within detention facilities. Women and girls in correctional facilities also face sexual harassment and assault from correctional staff, as witnessed by women inmates in Shakopee Prison. Estimates indicate that roughly 31 percent of detained girls have experienced some form of sexual victimization by the time they enter the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, research on the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline reveals that women and girls in particular are criminalized because of their sexual victimization through status offenses and human trafficking laws. Once incarcerated, women and girls are subject to routine activities like strip searches and surveillance while showering that perpetually expose their bodies in ways not encountered outside of incarceration. While correctional norms legitimize these invasive practices under the logic that they protect incarcerated women and girls from harming themselves, their peers, or the officers that oversee them, many — especially those that are survivors of prior sexual victimization — experience such practices as sexual violation.

Envisioning a Different World

Some local policy recommendations emphasize reforming police responses to sexual assault through new interviewing techniques, empathy training, and an increase in sex crimes investigators. At the same time, recent calls to defund Minneapolis Police after several killings of unarmed Black men have reaffirmed many community organizers’ and advocates’ goal to develop alternative public safety interventions. While several states — including Minnesota – have implemented mandatory arrest policies, increased law enforcement, and tougher sentences for persons convicted of sex and domestic violence crimes, scholars and advocates believe these interventions contributed to the mass criminalization and  incarceration of Black and brown men. As such, many scholars and advocates argue for a treatment of women’s sexual assault and harassment as a public health issue, rather than relying solely on the criminal legal system.

Anti-rape activists and policymakers can advocate for a variety social, cultural, and political changes to increase prevention and strengthen our response to sexual violence. First, we must invest in cultural change by implementing early adolescent education around bodily autonomy and consent. Second, we need to identify and dismantle institutional contexts—from schools to prisons to workplaces—that create opportunities for harassment and abuse. Third, we must develop confidential disclosure and reporting mechanisms that center victim agency in decision-making. Fourth, governments and institutions must establish clear mechanisms of accountability for perpetrators. Lastly, it is vital that we support and fund community-led initiatives and research on transformative justice practices that reduce reliance on police, prosecutors, and prisons.

Recognizing survivors and the extent of the problem is the first step. But to end sexual violence against Minnesota’s women and girls, we’ll need to take many more.

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