April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness about the disturbing prevalence of sexual assault and the importance of supporting survivors in their healing journey. Sexual assault can mean any sexual contact without consent, a serious problem that affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. 

National statistics indicate that an average of one in three women and one in four men will experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lives, and many of those will seek help from victim advocates or from law enforcement. 

On April 16, Seekhaven held a panel with members of the Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, which provides cross-organizational support and assistance to victims. The panel featured Seekhaven’s Director of Client Services Morgan Flynn and Victim Advocate Aryonna Miller, Moab Police Department detective and Sexual Assault Response Team member Eric Pratt, and Kerri Fife, coordinator for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Moab Regional Hospital. The panel attempted to demystify what happens when a victim contacts one of the organizations, what options people have during the process and also to dispel some concerns that may prevent people from seeking support. 

Truth: Victims should not face criminal charges stemming from reporting an attack

One challenge to victims coming forward may be feelings of guilt, shame, or concerns that they could face criminal charges due to drinking or using drugs. 

“[Substance abuse is] not an invitation to being sexually assaulted,” said Pratt, who urged victims to come forward even if they had been under the influence. “In my 18 years of policing, I’ve never heard someone come in for a sexual assault exam and ended up with a charge to do with drinking or controlled substances.”

Members of the SART also wanted to reassure victims that they would not risk deportation by reporting a crime against them. 

“Any person that presents to an ER, no matter what type of exam is performed,” said Fife, “nowhere do I ask what your residency status is in the United States.” 

Pratt agreed that local law enforcement was unlikely to pursue immigration issues—a federal issue—and emphasized that their priority was to help victims of local crimes.

Truth: Sexual assault reporting is not only for cases of rape

Another issue that the SART team deals with is the mistaken belief that sexual assault exams or reporting are solely for crimes of rape. Yet sexual assault can be any sexual contact that happens without a person’s consent, including rape or attempted rape but also unwanted touching.

Fife said that in the exams performed by nurses in the SANE program, any part of the body which has been non-consensually touched can be checked for DNA. 

Fife said that exams could be performed even if a victim had showered or eaten, as DNA was still recoverable.

Truth: All genders and sexualities can be the victims of assault

Men are also victims of sexual assault, but may struggle to report an attack, Pratt said. According to one national study published by the Centers for Disease Control, nearly a quarter (24.8%) of men in the U.S. likely experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. 

“There is a lot of shame from men,” he said, and said that he believed that male victims were even more common than statistics show. 

Fife noted that sexual assault exams are appropriate for all and stressed that the reporting process should be a safe place for those of different sexualities or gender identities. 

Truth: Organizations support the choices of victims of sexual assault

Even if a person has decided that they do not want to report an assault or pursue charges, advocates urge victims to reach out for support. 

“In my experience, we definitely serve a lot of people who choose not to report,” said Flynn. “We are never going to pressure someone to report … And there are other ways to increase someone’s safety that don’t necessarily involve law enforcement.”

Fife noted that while SANE nurses are mandated reporters who are required to report instances of sexual assault to the authorities, the priority is to care for the victim and provide medical support as needed. 

“Beyond that, you can decide that you don’t really want to talk with law enforcement, if you’re not ready for that, or you don’t want to do that,” she said. 

Pratt agreed, saying that from a law enforcement standpoint, “those are decisions that need to be made by the victim of the crime.”

One of the strengths of the collaborative Sexual Assault Response Team is that victims can access the same services regardless of which organization they report to. 

If you have been the victim of an assault, Seekhaven has a 24-hour hotline that offers an always-available way for people to reach out at 435-250-2229. To reach a victim advocate at the Moab Police Department, call 435-259-8938. Moab Regional Hospital can be reached at 435-719-3500.