Last week, on Wednesday, April 24, the Department of Justice made public its new guidelines for sexual assault forensic exams and victim help. The aim is commendable—to provide victim assistance first and foremost. The 145-page report is available to read online.
Knowing that changes in the system are being made is not only important to the well-being of victims, but also to the mindset of possible victimizers. Sexual assault and rape are crimes about power.
Adjusting the system so that victims are protected more than the victimizers helps to adjust the balance of power between them.
Because these are national guidelines, they can be upheld even in the face of lesser standards issued elsewhere. This means that those raped while affected by the military and prison systems will be protected by these new standards.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing in March to discuss sexual assault issues in the military, a meeting that The Washington Post reported was the first of its kind in the last ten years. The Post said that a Pentagon report just last year noted the reluctance to report rape. Only approximately one-sixth of sexual assault victims in the military do so.
The research for the guidelines demonstrated that it would be a good idea to encourage women in all situations who have been assaulted to have evidence collected even if they don’t want to report the rape immediately to authorities. That way, hesitating to report a crime immediately won’t impair the chance to do so later.
The report also encourages that contraception be distributed to rape victims, and that if practitioners don’t want to do so personally because of their own beliefs, they should nonetheless distribute information about where to obtain contraception.
In addition, although victims may have been raped while involuntarily under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the report notes that even if victims were under the influence of alcohol or drugs of their own volition, the serious nature of rape is the same and should be recognized as such.
About its aim to assist victims, the report says that “For individuals who experience this horrendous crime, having a positive experience with the criminal justice and health care systems can contribute greatly to their overall healing.”
This is encouraging news for those who have contributed to documentaries, op-ed pieces, letter-writing campaigns, and personal appeals seeking changes in the system concerning sexual assault. It means that the past doesn’t necessarily portend the future. But vigilance and documentation will be crucial going forward to make sure the idealism evident in the report is also realism.
For more about assistance with rape, go to:
Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power.
Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College.
Contact Linda at email@example.com