Start by Believing: Changing Attitudes Toward Sexual Assault

There is no shame when your loved one dies. When your car is stolen. When you’re diagnosed with cancer. Friends and loved ones gather around you for support. They don’t blame you for “bringing it on yourself.” It should be the same with sexual violence. Rape and sexual assault are just as unpredictable, just as devastating. But all too often, victims who have the courage to tell someone what happened are blamed for bringing it on themselves. A terrifying attack becomes a source of shame, not support. And the pain—and shame—ripples with destructive effects on families, communities, and the very fabric of our society. Sexual violence hurts everyone.

—brochure developed by End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) to introduce the Start by Believing public awareness campaign.

Two Stories in Two Days

Two stories—in two days—illustrated in heartbreaking relief the critical need for change in societal attitudes toward sexual assault. Law enforcement leaders can lead the way to effect this change.

On December 15, 2012, The Observer reported on the recent $1.5 million settlement a rape victim won against a Pennsylvania city police detective.1 In 2004, Sara Reedy was working in a convenience store outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when a man entered the store, pulled a gun, emptied the cash register, and sexually assaulted her at gunpoint, saying he would shoot her if she didn’t comply with his demands. Yet one of the first questions the detective asked was not about the rape, but whether Reedy used drugs. Then he asked her, “Where is the money?” The detective did not investigate Reedy’s sexual assault or connect it with another similar attack that was committed shortly thereafter—even though they were the only two rapes reported in the township that year and were assigned to the same detective. Instead, he had Reedy arrested and jailed for five days for three misdemeanors: theft, receipt of stolen property, and filing a false report. Her report was also not believed by the nurses and emergency room doctor on call that night, and according to Reedy, she did not receive the services she needed from the victim advocacy organization once her report was labeled as a false allegation. More than a year later, the man was arrested for another sexual assault. He ultimately confessed to committing 12 sexual assaults, 10 of those after Reedy’s—meaning 10 sexual assaults that could have been prevented if the professionals responding to Reedy’s case had reacted appropriately by starting from an orientation of believing her report.

On December 14, 2012, only one day before Reedy’s story and settlement was reported, MSN News announced that a judge in Southern California was publicly admonished for saying that a rape victim in one of his cases “didn’t put up a fight” and for claiming that a woman’s body would not permit sexual intercourse if it was unwanted. The judge, a former sex crimes prosecutor, reportedly said:

I’m not a gynecologist, but I can tell you something: if someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case.2

The California Commission on Judicial Performance voted unanimously in support of the public admonishment of this judge, citing a “breach of judicial ethics.” The case involved “a man who threatened to mutilate the face and genitals of his ex-girlfriend with a heated screwdriver before committing rape, forced oral copulation, and other crimes.”3

Sadly, the attitudes displayed in these stories are not unique to these individuals—the detectives, nurses, doctors, and judges involved in the two cases—nor have they disappeared since these stories first appeared. Rather, these attitudes permeate society and cause untold damage to victims who have the courage to disclose that they were sexually assaulted.

In fact, we continue to see the effects of these attitudes in media stories every day. In hauntingly parallel stories, the media reported on one teenage victim in Steubenville, Ohio and another in Maryville, Missouri, both of whom were sexually assaulted and then tormented and vilified by members of the community. In both cases, the victims were forsaken by the adults involved as well as the professionals responsible for seeking accountability. Charges have since been filed against four adults in Steubenville, for obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence, and a special prosecutor has been appointed in Maryville.4

The attitudes were heartbreakingly evident in Cleveland, Texas, where an 11-year old girl was gang raped by 21 teenage boys and men, yet the New York Times chose to report on the fact that the victim wore makeup and dressed like a 20-year old. One resident was quoted as saying, “What was her mother thinking?”5 Moreover, the judge in Southern California was not the only one to express such attitudes in a court decision. Months later, a judge in Billings, Montana, sentenced a former high school teacher to 30 days in jail for raping a student. He explained that the 14-year old victim was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as the teacher.6 Another judge overturned the jury’s conviction of a man convicted of three counts of rape against a woman with Down Syndrome because she did not act “like a victim.”

Nor did Mr. Dumas (the defendant) behave like someone who had recently perpetrated a series of violent crimes against her.7

Such attitudes cripple society’s ability to hold sex offenders accountable for their crimes.

The Start by Believing public awareness campaign was created to change this tragic reality. It was specifically designed to improve the reactions of professionals and other support people when someone turns to them and says, “I was raped.” By changing what happens in that moment of initial disclosure, it may be possible to prevent a devastating cascade of harm and, instead, guide sexual assault victims on a path toward justice and healing.

Law enforcement leaders have the opportunity to make a significant, positive impact in their communities by working with community partners to launch a Start by Believing campaign and taking other steps to change the way both professionals and the public view sexual assault. Nowhere is this clearer than in Arizona, where the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police (AACOP), along with their Executive Board and immediate Past President, Chief Jerald Monahan, are leading the charge to make it the first “Start by Believing State.”

In early 2013, Apache Junction became the first Arizona city to issue a proclamation to Start by Believing victims of sexual assault. It was soon followed by many other cities and counties, with more to come. Chief John L. Pickens at Arizona State University, the largest university in the nation, is currently working to launch a campaign on campus.

Yet, the message has even spread to a statewide level. On April 9, 2014, the Governor of Arizona is scheduled to issue a formal proclamation declaring Arizona a “Start by Believing State,” in honor of Victims’ Rights Week. On April 15, 2014, the Arizona House of Representatives will make the same proclamation in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Chief Monahan credits several tribes with taking action that helped to spark this statewide momentum. The sexual assault coalition for the Hopi, Zuni, Apache and Navajo tribes purchased billboard space to spread the word: “Start by Believing.”

The AACOP is currently working to partner with Sprint and the Mountain Pacific Region of the State Associations of Chiefs of Police to sponsor Start by Believing campaigns across their 13-state region.

Such efforts can potentially improve the well-being of sexual assault victims and their loved ones and increase their ability to participate in the investigation and prosecution of their cases. This, in turn, has the potential to lead to more successful case outcomes and, ultimately, protect communities by holding sexual assault perpetrators accountable for their crimes and deterring them from repeatedly committing crimes with impunity.

The Myth of False Reporting

As stated at the outset of this article, the attitudes of disbelief that are seen in the two opening stories are unfortunately not unusual. Evidence from a wide variety of sources suggests that both professionals and the public alike share an unwarranted degree of skepticism when faced with a disclosure of sexual assault victimization. This can be referred to as the myth of false reporting. Of course, there are false reports; research suggests that the rate of false reporting for sexual assault is around 2–8 percent.8 Rather, the myth of false reporting refers to the commonly held notion that many, if not most, sexual assault are false. In other words, it describes the knee-jerk reaction of skepticism that is all too often seen in response to a disclosure of sexual assault victimization.

In research studies, for example, many respondents indicate their agreement with statements such as: “Many so-called rape victims are actually women who had sex and ‘changed their minds’ afterwards;” “Rape accusations are often used as a way of getting back at men;” and “A lot of women lead a man on and then they cry rape.”9 In fact, almost the entire body of research on false reporting focuses on sexual assault, with only a small number of studies on stalking.10 There is not a body of published research on the topic of false reporting for other crimes, including those that law enforcement professionals often cite as having a particularly high rate of false reporting, such as arson, burglary, and other property crimes.

Media Coverage

The myth of false reporting is also apparent in the stories reported in the media, especially when they highlight the damaging consequences of this belief. For example, in December 2011, a headline from The Herald in Everett, Washington, reads: “Rape Wasn’t a Lie, Lynwood, WA, Police Now Say.”

Police now believe a woman they once accused of lying about a 2008 rape in a Lynnwood apartment.

Investigators then had such grave doubts about what they described as her ever-changing story, they charged her with false reporting. She wound up pleading guilty.11

The woman paid a fine of $500 and was forced to undergo mental health counseling. Three years later, Lynwood police received a call from investigators in Colorado who discovered photographs of many sexual assault victims including the one in their case. Ultimately, Marc Patrick O’Leary was sentenced to serve 327½ years to life. The Lynwood victim later won a $150,000 settlement against the city of Lynnwood.12

The Cleveland Plain Dealer also reported on the 2009 discovery of 11 decomposing bodies of women inside a house in Cleveland. The owner of the home was a convicted sex offender named Anthony Sowell who was arrested and charged with numerous counts of rape and murder. However, the year before, a woman had run to the police bleeding and screaming for help. She had been attacked by Anthony Sowell, and put her hand through a window in her desperate attempt to escape. As a result, her thumb required more than a dozen stitches. Police interviewed the woman, collected her clothing, and took pictures of her injuries. Hospital personnel conducted an exam. At Sowell’s home, police found signs of a struggle and blood. They interviewed Sowell and took pictures of injuries on his shoulders and legs. Yet prosecutors concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge, indicating that “the detective did not believe the victim was credible.” The detective noted in his report: “Clean up report – Unfounded.”13 Such examples—drawn from research and the media—illustrate the critical need for change in attitudes toward sexual assault. The Start by Believing public awareness campaign was designed to do just that.

Start by Believing

The Start by Believing campaign is focused on the public response to sexual assault, because research demonstrates that the first person a victim confides in after an assault is not typically a police officer or other professional, but a friend or family member.14 Their reaction is, therefore, the first step in a victim’s long path toward justice and healing.

If friends, family members, and professionals do not respond appropriately, their negative reactions will only worsen the victim’s trauma and decrease the likelihood that the victim will access community services and report the assault to police. In fact, the relationship is a direct one: the more negative reactions a victim receives from friends and family members, the worse that victim’s physical and emotional health.15 On the other hand, a positive reaction will not only improve their health and well-being, but also increase the chance that victims will reach out for help from other sources.16 The two positive behaviors that stand out for victims are having someone to talk to and being believed.

Improving Justice Outcomes

Positive support is critical for victims to become engaged—and remain engaged—in the criminal justice system. It may be the only way to decrease the percentage of sexual assault cases where victims “decline prosecution” and withdraw from participating in the investigation of their case. This happens in as many as one-third to one-half of all sexual assault cases, with higher rates when the victim and offender know each other.17 Dr. Rebecca Campbell at Michigan State University and her colleagues have demonstrated that successful prosecution requires two key elements: (1) a thorough, evidence-based investigation by law enforcement, and (2) a victim who is both willing and able to participate in the criminal justice process.

Our interviews with both survivors and police revealed that victims can give more detailed statements to law enforcement, remember more information, and can otherwise engage more fully with the investigation when they are not so traumatized and have adequate support.18

Victims, particularly adolescents, typically need a supportive friend or family member to be able to participate in the criminal justice process.19

Research has also documented that the way detectives question victims can affect not only the way they feel, but also the quality of information they can provide and, ultimately, the likelihood of successful prosecution. Dr. Debra Patterson at Wayne State University in Detroit conducted in-depth interviews with 20 sexual assault victims and found that they were more likely to see their case successfully prosecuted if the detective took time to establish rapport, made sure they felt safe and comfortable, and paced their questions appropriately, with sufficient breaks for victims to alleviate their distress and help them to regain composure. In cases that were prosecuted, victims also “described their detectives’ style of questioning as gentle by encouraging them to ‘tell more,’ instead of ‘demanding’ answers.”20 In other words, victims responded positively when they felt the detective believed them, a feeling that existed either because the detective explicitly said so or because of the level of effort victims saw being made on their behalf. As one victim said:

The detectives, they believed me; they never said, ‘I believe you.’ But just their work ethic and how they handled themselves and how they talked to me and treated me … you can tell.… They just made me feel so good and that I was doing the right thing, and I mean to me there was no doubt that they ever thought for a minute that I was lying, never for a minute.21

It’s clear that one of the most effective strategies for improving the criminal justice response to sexual assault is the same approach needed to increase the well-being of victims: ensuring that they receive a supportive response from professionals and loved ones.

Only with participating victims can the criminal justice system challenge the current environment where so many sexual assault predators face zero consequences for their crimes. Current estimates suggest that no more than 20 percent of sexual assaults will be reported and less than 3 percent will result in the conviction and incarceration of the perpetrator.22 Moreover, because rapists attack an average of six times, one failed response can equal five more victims.23 The Start by Believing campaign was created to stop this cycle by creating a positive community response to sexual assault—both to improve outcomes for victims and to hold more offenders accountable for their crimes.

Call for Leadership

In order to strengthen the criminal justice response to victims of sexual assault and raise public awareness, the Start by Believing campaign was launched in April 2011 during Sexual Assault Awareness Month at the International Conference on Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Stalking hosted by EVAWI. Working in partnership with FSA Management Group, and the multidisciplinary Board of Directors for EVAWI, a number of educational materials were developed to help launch the campaign in communities across the United States. These included print materials such as brochures, posters, and postcards; promotional items (e.g., t-shirts, and bracelets); and a website that provides information on the campaign, supplies campaign materials, and offers opportunities for individuals to make a personal commitment and join the effort. Communities across the United States have taken advantage of the opportunity. This strategy is perhaps best described by an investigator who took the message to heart:

I am a law enforcement officer and had the opportunity to attend the EVAWI conference in April. I saw the “Start by Believing” campaign and got a bracelet. A week after returning from the conference, I was assigned a sexual assault case that from the beginning, the responding officer didn’t believe. I looked at my bracelet and decided I was going to “Start by Believing.” During my interview with the victim, every time there were things that were strange or didn’t make sense, I would look at my bracelet and BELIEVE. I obtained an indictment on the offender and the case is awaiting trial. I “Start by Believing.”24

In order to encourage survivors of sexual assault to report and receive support, law enforcement leaders and their community partners are encouraged to implement the Start by Believing campaign using a variety of strategies both big and small and consistently demonstrating [ital]leadership from the top[end]. A campaign can include disseminating brochures and other written materials, promoting media coverage, posting campaign materials on the department’s website, spreading the word through social media channels, including it in training, and ensuring that the message remains front and center by emphasizing it at every possible opportunity: “At our law enforcement agency, we Start by Believing.”

Campaign Examples

Examples of this type of agency leadership include the Austin (Texas) Police Department’s website for the Sex Crimes Unit, which reads:

Our motto is ‘We Believe,’ because we understand the bias and prejudice victims can experience due to common misperceptions about the realities of sexual assault. We encourage anyone who has been, or thinks they have been sexually assaulted to report it immediately to the Austin Police Department.25

In Canyon County, Idaho the Sheriff’s Office remodeled their victim interview room to make the room more comfortable and safe, including a Start by Believing message painted on the wall. Another example is San Luis Obispo (California), where Chief Stephen Gesell and Sheriff Ian Parkinson have joined a number of community partners in promoting the campaign message, including co-sponsoring a local brochure (in both Spanish and English), supporting a roadside billboard, posting a logo and link for the Start by Believing campaign on the home page of the police department’s website, and filming an inspirational, yet amusing video message of support.26 Both Chief Gesell and Sheriff Parkinson also helped to get the City and County of San Luis Obispo to formally declare February 1, 2013, as “Start by Believing Day.” This effort generated media coverage that helped spread the campaign message, and both Chief Gesell and Sheriff Parkinson worked behind the scenes to encourage participation among other law enforcement leaders in the area.27

Social media also played a significant role. A local Facebook page for the campaign was a central gathering point for information, resources, updates, and photographs of community members taking action to spread the message of Start by Believing. An email survey revealed that social media was one of the most common ways community respondents heard of the campaign, along with the roadside billboard, their own personal contacts, and campus outlets. The survey also documented that most community respondents were familiar with the campaign and understood as well as supported the message. In fact, as many as two-thirds discussed the campaign with someone else, which may be the most important measure of success.28

There is reason to believe the campaign in San Luis Obispo may have had a powerful impact, as the number of sexual assaults reported to the police department increased dramatically in 2013. It is not possible to say with certainty that this increase in sexual assault reporting was due to the campaign, but it is certainly a plausible explanation. As Captain Chris Staley of the San Luis Obispo Police Department stated, “I think that definitely could have had an impact on how many people actually reported, because I think we all know how many of these go unreported.”29

Another agency that has taken steps to change the way they approach sexual assault is the Ashland, Oregon, Police Department. Deputy Chief Corey Falls described the impetus for these reforms:

In January of 2010, I was assisting the Investigations Division with a series of stranger sexual assaults we were investigating. One of the detectives I talked to told me how discouraging it is that we only hear from victims when a sexual assault has occurred at the hands of a stranger as opposed to someone known to the victim. It made us question why we were not receiving these other reports so that we could investigate and hopefully prosecute, the sexual predators who are committing these crimes in our community.

This conversation led us to spend the next two years completely overhauling how sexual assault investigations are handled. We first asked each other if we would report if we or a loved one was sexually assaulted. Too often the honest answer was no. This forced us to face the reality of what it means to report a sexual assault. The barriers that prevent so many from holding their attacker accountable are understandable; guilt, embarrassment, fear of not being believed, and concerns of confidentiality, to name a few. We didn’t have the ability to remove every barrier a victim faces when reporting a sexual assault, but there were some we could change immediately. So we did.30

Other agencies can make these kinds of changes too, either by launching a Start by Believing campaign in the community or making other changes in the approach to sexual assault. One place to start is by sending investigators through the OnLine Training Institute (OLTI) training module, False Reports: Moving Beyond the Issue to Successfully Investigate and Prosecute Sexual Assault. Before long, it may be possible to see the impact of those changes.

Potential Impact

The potential for positive impact may be best illustrated in the community of Kansas City, Missouri, where Lamar Advertising donated space on 17 billboards across the metropolitan area to display a Start by Believing message. The billboards were later extended across the state, and Captain Mark Folsom and Detective Catherine Johnson of the Kansas City Police Department (KCPD) worked together with other community partners to push the campaign message to the media. In addition, Captain Folsom briefed the KCPD command staff and ensured that campaign posters were placed in the roll call rooms at all six patrol divisions, as well as at locations within the Special Victims Unit.

Preliminary evidence suggests that they may have significantly increased help-seeking behaviors among sexual assault victims. According to data provided by the local rape crisis center (the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault), the number of hospital callouts increased dramatically when the billboards first appeared, to the highest level in the previous five years, but then declined once they were removed.31 As in San Luis Obispo, the number of rape reports to the KCPD also increased when the billboards were introduced, although national figures for rape reporting were generally in decline. The number of rape reports to KCPD then decreased when the billboards were removed.32 However, this data collection effort was not designed in any systematic way, so other factors might have contributed to the pattern that was observed. More rigorous evaluation is needed.

Need for Change

Such research is needed to document whether implementing the Start by Believing campaign increases the likelihood that someone who is sexually assaulted will reach out to friends, family members, or responding professionals and whether this disclosure yields a positive reaction and increases other help-seeking behaviors. This is where law enforcement leaders come in. After launching a campaign, law enforcement leadership will be needed to find out if more sexual assault victims are reporting to police. Do they see the agency as a safe place to report? Are they able to stay engaged throughout the investigation? Are more cases being successfully referred to the county attorney? Are more defendants being prosecuted? If so, leadership will again be needed to help the public understand that this does not necessarily mean the number of sexual assaults has increased in the community, but rather that reporting has increased due to more public awareness and a victim-centered approach.

It is easy to see how this could change the status quo. If research supports the pattern observed in the pilot study, which suggested that the Start by Believing public awareness campaign can have a positive impact on help-seeking behaviors by sexual assault victims, then it has the potential to improve societal response on a far broader level.♦

1Joanna Walters, “Sara Reedy, the Rape Victim Accused of Lying and Jailed by US Police, Wins $1.5m Payout,” The Observer, December 15, 2012, (accessed March 12, 2014).

2 “U.S. Judge Says Victims’ Bodies Can Prevent Rape,” USA Today, December 14, 2012, (accessed March 17, 2014).

3 “Judge Says Victim’s Body Can Prevent Rape,” MSN News, December 14, 2012, (accessed March 17, 2014).

4 Steubenville, Ohio: Rachel Dissell, “Rape Charges against High School Players Divide Football Town of Steubenville, Ohio,” The Plain Dealer, September, 2, 2012, (accessed March 17, 2014); Trip Gabriel, “Inquiry in Cover-Up of Ohio Rape Yields Indictment of Four Adults,” The New York Times, November 25, 2013, (accessed March 17, 2014); Steve Almasy, “Two Teens Found Guilty in Steubenville Rape Case,” CNN, March 17, 2013, (accessed March 17, 2014).
Maryville, Missouri: Dugan Arnett, “Nightmare in Maryville: Teens’ Sexual Encounter Ignites a Firestorm Against Family,” The Kansas City Star, October 24, 2013, (accessed March 17, 2014); Mark Morris and Dugan Arnett, “Maryville Teen Pleads Guilty to Endangerment; No Sexual Assault Charge Is Filed,” The Kansas City Star, January 9, 2014, (accessed March 17, 2014); Dugan Arnett and Mark Morris, “In Unusual Tactic, Miranda Rights Were Read to Daisy Coleman in Maryville Case,” The Kansas City Star, March 7, 2014, (March 17, 2014).

5 James C. McKinley, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” The New York Times, March 8, 2011, (accessed March 17, 2014).

6 Christine Mai-Duc, “Judge in rape case criticized for light sentence, remarks about victim.” Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2013, (accessed March 17, 2014).

7 Bill Rankin and Steve Visser, “Appeals Court Judge Under Fire for Ordering New Rape Trial,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 26, 2014,”> (accessed March 17, 2014).

8 For a summary of the research on false reporting of sexual assault, see David Lisak et al., “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases,” Violence Against Women 16, no. 12 (2010): 1318–1334.

9 Kimberly A Lonsway and Louise F. Fitzgerald, “Rape Myths: In Review,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 18 (1994): 133–164. In the study by Diana L. Payne, Kimberly A. Lonsway, and Louise F. Fitzgerald (“Rape Myth Acceptance: Exploration of Its Structure and Its Measurement Using the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale,” Journal of Research in Personality 33 (1999), 27–68), the average response to such items among a student sample was 3.8 for men and 2.6 for women, on a 7-point scale where 1 = not at all agree and 7 = very much agree. These scores were among the highest on their Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale. In another study of U.S. students and adults, respondents indicated some level of agreement with the statements: “Women often accuse their husbands of marital rape just to retaliate for a failed relationship,” and “To get custody for their children, women often falsely accuse their ex-husband of a tendency toward sexual violence” (Heike Gerger et al., “The Acceptance of Modern Myths about Sexual Aggressions (AMMSA) Scale: Development and Validation in German and English,” Aggressive Behavior 33 (2007), 422–40). Participants scored an average of 2.6 on the first item and 3.3 on the second, with responses scored on a 7-point scale from 1 = totally disagree to 7 = totally agree. These are some of the highest scores on the Acceptance of Modern Myths About Sexual Aggression Scale developed by Dr. Gerd Bohner and colleagues. Finally, in a sample of police officers, as many as 60 percent agreed with the statement that “Women who are caught having an illicit affair sometimes claim that it was rape,” and 40 percent agreed that “Many so-called rape victims are actually women who had sex and ‘changed their minds’ afterwards” (Emma Sleath and Ray Bull, “Comparing Rape Victim and Perpetrator Blaming in a Police Officer Sample: Differences Between Police Officers With and Without Special Training,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 39, No. 5 (2012), 646–665).

10 See James J. McNamara, Sean McDonald, and Jennifer M. Lawrence, “Characteristics of False Allegation Adult Crimes,” Journal of Forensic Science 57, No. 3 (2012): 643–646.

11 Eric Stevick and Diana Hefley, “Rape Wasn’t a Lie Lynwood Police Now Say,” The Herald, November 4, 2011, (accessed March 13, 2014).

12 Sara Burnett, “Serial Rapist Sentenced to More than 300 Years in Prison after Apologizing to Victims,” Denver Post, December 9, 2011, (accessed March 13, 2014). Diana Hefley, “Lynnwood settles with rape victim for $150K,” The Herald, January 16, 2014, (accessed March 17, 2014).

13 Rachel Dissell, “Cleveland Woman Says She Fought, Fled Anthony Sowell in 2008 Attack but Authorities Didn’t Believe Her,” The Plain Dealer, November 16, 2009, (accessed March 13, 2014).

14 In the aftermath of a sexual assault, victims make a variety of decisions, including whether and how to seek help. Most seek help informally from friends and family members; estimates range from 58–94 percent; Henrietta H. Filipas and Sarah E. Ullman, “Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Victims From Various Support Sources,” Violence and Victims 16 (December 2001): 673–692; Laura L. Starzynski et al., “Correlates of Women’s Sexual Assault Disclosure to Informal and Formal Support Sources,” Violence and Victims 20 (August 2005): 415–431; for review, see Kim S. Ménard, Reporting Sexual Assault: A Social Ecology Perspective (New York, NY: LFB Scholarly Publishing, L.L.C., 2005).

15 Rebecca Campbell et al., “Social Reactions to Rape Victims: Healing and Hurtful Effects on Psychological and Physical Health Outcomes,” Violence and Victims 16 (June 2001): 287–302.

16 Victims can benefit significantly from disclosing to family members, friends, and intimate partners if the response is positive. They can receive not only emotional support, but also information and concrete assistance with tangible needs. They are also more likely to access community resources with the support of friends and family members.
Campbell et al., “Social Reactions to Rape Victims”; Shirley Feldman-Summers and Jeanette Norris, “Differences between Rape Victims Who Report and Those Who Do Not Report to a Public Agency,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 14 (1984): 562–573; Filipas and Ullman, “Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Victims from Various Support Sources”; Sarah E. Ullman, “Do Social Reactions to Sexual Assault Victims Vary by Support Provider?” Violence and Victims, 11 (1996): 143–157; Ménard, Reporting Sexual Assault; Libby O. Ruch, Barry J. Coyne, and Paul A. Perrone, Reporting Sexual Assault to the Police in Hawaii (Hawaii Dept of the Attorney General, Hawaii Correctional Industries, 2000), (accessed March 13, 2014).

17 Patricia Frazier et al., “Rape Survivors and the Legal System,” in Violence and the Law, ed. Mark Constanzo and Stuart Oskamp (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994), 135–158; Cassia Spohn, Nancy Rodriguez, and Mary Koss, “ ‘The Victim Declined to Prosecute’: Accounting for Lack of Cooperation in Sexual Assault Cases” (paper presented at the 60th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, St. Louis, MO, November 13, 2008); Katharine M. Tellis and Cassia C. Spohn, “The Sexual Stratification Hypothesis Revisited: Testing Assumptions About Simple Versus Aggravate Rape,” Journal of Criminal Justice, 36 (July 2008): 252–261.

18 Rebecca Campbell et al., Systems Change Analysis of SANE Programs: Identifying the Mediating Mechanisms of Criminal Justice System Impact (2009), 121, (accessed March 13, 2014).

19 Rebecca Campbell et al., Adolescent Sexual Assault Victims’ Experiences with SANE-SARTs and the Criminal Justice System (2010), (accessed March 13, 2014).

20 Debra Patterson, “The Impact of Detectives’ Manner of Questioning on Rape Victims’ Disclosure,” Violence Against Women, 17 (November 2011): 1349–1373, 1358.

21 Ibid., 1360.

22 Social scientific research using community samples suggests that only about 5–20 percent of victims report the crime to law enforcement (e.g., Bonnie S. Fisher et al., The Sexual Victimization of College Women, NCJ 182369, (Washington DC: NIJ, Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2000), (accessed March 13, 2014); Patricia Frazier et al., “Rape Survivors and the Legal System;” Dean G. Kilpatrick, Christine N. Edmunds, and Anne E. Seymour, Rape in America: A Report to the Nation (Arlington, VA: National Crime Victims Center, 1992); Dean G. Kilpatrick et al., Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study, NCJ 213181 (Charleston, SC: National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 2007), (accessed March 13, 2014); Patricia Tjaden and Nancy Thoennes, Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, NCJ 183781 (Washington, DC: NIJ, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2000), (accessed March 13, 2014).
Of these, very few work their way through the funnel of attrition within the criminal justice system to result in a conviction and a sentence of incarceration. In fact, based on a variety of sources of data within social science research and archival criminal justice statistics. Kimberly A Lonsway and Joanne Archambault in “The ‘Justice Gap’ for Sexual Assault Cases: Future Directions for Research and Reform,” (Violence Against Women 18, No. 2 ( February 2012), 145–168, 157) have recently estimated that “of 100 forcible rapes that are committed, approximately 5–20 will be reported, 0.4 to 5.4 will be prosecuted, and 0.2 to 5.2 will result in a conviction. Only 0.2 to 2.9 will yield a felony conviction. Then an estimated 0.2 to 2.8 will result in incarceration of the perpetrator, with 0.1 to 1.9 in prison and 0.1 to 0.9 in jail.”

23 For research on rape reperpetration, see David Lisak and Paul M. Miller, “Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending among Undetected Rapists,” Violence and Victims 17, no.1 (2002): 73–84; and Stephanie K. McWhorter et al., “Reports of Rape Reperpetration by Newly Enlisted Male Navy Personnel,” Violence and Victims 24, no.2 (2009): 204–218.

24 Testimonial, July 21, 2011, (accessed March 19, 2014).

25 See “Sex Crimes,” City of Austin, (accessed March 13, 2014).

26 The San Luis Obispo Police Department website can be found at:; the video, “Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Start by Believing,” is available at, 1 minute, 45seconds, (both accessed March 13, 2014).

27 For example, the campaign was covered by local television stations, the daily newspaper, the weekly news magazine, a popular radio talk show, and a variety of smaller scale outlets (e.g., newsletters, websites).

28 For more information on the campaign and survey in San Luis Obispo, please contact the first author at

29 Colin Rigley, “Speaking Out: The Number of Reported Sexual Assaults in SLO Increased Dramatically in 2013,” New Times, February 12, 2014, (accessed March 17, 2014).

30 Corey Falls (deputy chief, Ashland, Oregon Police Department), email, April 15, 2013.

31 Thanks to Melanie Austin, Program Services Coordinator at the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA) in Kansas City, Missouri, for providing this data, which is available upon request.

32 Thanks to Captain Mark Folsom and Captain David Lindaman of the Kansas City Police Department for providing this data, which is available upon request. For national statistics, please see the latest data published by the FBI through the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) Program at (accessed March 13, 2014).

Please cite as:

Kimberly A. Lonsway and Joanne Archambault, “Start by Believing: Changing Attitudes Toward Sexual Assault,” Web-only article, The Police Chief 81 (April 2014).