Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax repeated his denial of a sexual misconduct allegation outside the Virginia statehouse on Monday. A conservative website first reported the allegation. Fairfax calls it a smear. (Feb. 5)
Even in the age of #MeToo, a woman who reports a high-profile man raped her, especially decades later, faces scrutiny and doubt. When she reports a second rape? That increased criticism is what Meredith Watson is facing this week.
Watson came forward on Friday to say that Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax raped her when they were students at Duke in 2000. She did so to support Vanessa Tyson, who previously said that Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004. Fairfax has denied assaulting both women.
After Watson’s lawyer released a statement about Fairfax, she released another one stating Fairfax “revealed that Ms. Watson was the victim of a prior rape.” The attorney confirmed that, adding that Watson reported to a dean at Duke, who discouraged her from pursuing it further.
A friend of Watson’s, attorney R. Stanton Jones, confirmed to USA TODAY that Watson told him Corey Maggette raped her. Maggette played one season at Duke in 1999 before going on to a 14-year NBA career. In a statement to the New York Times, Maggette denied sexually assaulting Watson.
If Watson faced the usual skepticism that greets women when they accuse a powerful man of rape when she spoke out about Fairfax, that seemed to be compounded when news of the second assault hit social media.
But that’s not consistent with the research on the prevalence of revictimization, experts said.
“Many people don’t realize the prevalence of sexual assault and how many people are actually survivors of sexual assault,” said Kathy Hodges, deputy director of the Durham (North Carolina) Crisis Response Center.
Hodges started work as a rape crisis counselor in 1982 and said while her center doesn’t measure repeat victimization, she said she sees it in “many” cases.
“It’s not like lightning striking twice. It’s more like getting knocked down by a wave twice,” she said. “It happens to a lot of people, and it’s not uncommon for it to happen a second time, at all. People are in denial about how frequently sexual assault happens.”
Revictimization isn’t rare
Research shows that not only is sexual assault common, but so is revictimization.
A 2017 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics examined nonfatal violent victimizations from 2005-2014, finding that 31% of rape or sexual assault victims experienced repeated victimization. That represented a great percentage than repeat victimization for victims of robbery, simple assault and aggravated assault.
The report also found nearly 16 percent of rape or sexual assault victims experienced two or more rape or sexual assault victimizations within a year, roughly double the repeat victimization for victims of robbery or aggravated assault.
A 2017 study published in Violence Against Women tracked 1,012 women in Chicago over a three-year period, finding 49% of the survivors “experienced some form of revictimization” in the last two years of the study. Most commonly, that was unwanted sexual contact, followed by coercion, attempted or completed forcible sexual assault and attempted or completed substance-involved assault.
“One of the best predictors of future victimization is past victimization. That’s something that we see across multiple forms of crime,” said Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “The unfortunate way that victims are responded to is often that they’re less believed and they are taken to be less credible.”
Several studies have established a relationship between sexual abuse or assault in childhood and sexual victimization in adulthood. A National Institute of Justice report from 2000 found women who said they were raped before they turned 18 “were twice as likely to report being raped as an adult.”
Target on your back?
Less clear than the prevalence of revictimization is the explanation as to why it happens. Experts who spoke with USA TODAY cautioned against blaming victims, saying the perpetrators are responsible for their actions.
Kristina Rose, executive director of End Violence Against Women International, said multiple factors can contribute to someone being sexually assaulted a second time, including “situational variables, such as socioeconomic status; the vulnerability of the particular person; psychological factors, whether they’re severely depressed, sometimes as a result of an earlier trauma.”
“These traumatic events kind of build on each other,” Rose said.
Common results of assault, such as anxiety or depression, substance use or abuse or self-doubt may be exploited by perpetrators, resulting in revictimization, Palumbo said.
“It’s about the perpetrator trying to choose someone that they think is going to be easy and is not going to report and that they can get away with it,” Hodges said. “Knowing that someone hasn’t reported before or reported and had a bad experience, certainly would make them more attractive if you were someone who might be interested in perpetrating.”
Mark Relyea, who co-authored the Chicago study with Sarah Ullman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said a hostile environment toward survivors was one of the “most consistent predictors of revictimization.”
“What we don’t necessarily know why this is true,” said Relyea, who is now an associate research scientist at Yale School of Medicine. “We know that when people tend to blame survivors, that increases the risk of survivors having more post-traumatic stress symptoms and engaging in more maladaptive coping skills … and those things might increase risk of revictimization.”
The opposite, “socially supporting women survivors and providing tangible and emotional support” may decrease revictimization, he said.
What statistics say about false reporting
Those reasons for not reporting can be all too familiar to someone who has been revictimized.
“They may have concrete examples of the types of consequences victims face when they come forward,” said Palumbo. “They may have experienced harassment after coming forward, threats. They may have had people in their life that turned against them or faced social isolation or lost relationships. They may have faced a lot of emotional turmoil in coming forward and not being believed and not being supported. They’re needing to force themselves to relive all of that, in addition to all that uncertainty and whether or not they will be believed, as well as those tangible experiences of trauma that survivors relive when they tell their stories.”
Underlying some of those fears is a cultural misconception about the instances of false reporting, experts said. According to multiple studies, estimates put false reports to law enforcement at 2% to 8%.
“False reports of rape are rare,” Rose said.
The #MeToo movement’s national reckoning over sexual assault has come amid a troubling trend in which police around the country are resolving a historically low percentage of rape claims. (Dec. 27)
Sexual assault victims face myriad barriers in reporting, including fear of being disbelieved or blamed, repercussions on relationships, shame or embarrassment.
The barriers to reporting can be exacerbated when the alleged perpetrator is well known or a public figure, experts said.
Sexual assault remains one of the most underreported crimes nationally. A 2016 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found 23% of rapes or sexual assaults were reported to police. The bureau’s 2017 report showed that 40% of those crimes were reported.
“People are becoming so much better educated, but it’s shocking how little the general public really knows about sexual assault,” Rose said. “And how quick they are to judge these women that come forward.”
Contributing: A.J. Perez, USA TODAY
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