With Sexual Assault Still Prevalent in Austin, Local Efforts Aim for Change

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We have all heard the statistics about sexual assault in the United States. More recently, a report from UT shared staggering statistics about the incidence of sexual assault in Texas. But what about progressive college towns like Austin?

Last week, Sarah Marloff at the Austin Chronicle published a thorough investigation into the reality of sexual assault in Austin, and the ways local law enforcement and advocates are working to create change.

As the Chronicle points out, some of the things most central to Austin’s identity, like music festivals and high college-age populations, contribute to the incidence of sexual assault in the city.

SafePlace Director of Community Advocacy Emily LeBlanc explained the increased risk associated with festivals like ACL and SXSW to the Chronicle: “It brings in more people – i.e., more rapists and more victims – crams them into small, usually hot spaces, and then plies them with alcohol. It’s ingredients for the perfect storm.”

LeBlanc’s observations are held up by the experiences of local police. APD Sex Crimes Sergeant Christine Chomout agreed with LeBlanc when she spoke to the Chronicle, saying,”Many times it’s predators who go to these festivals looking for the vulnerable target,” and the vulnerable target is often someone who is intoxicated or without a support system nearby, like a festival-goer from out of town.

While the presence of alcohol can often lend itself to the victim blaming that comes hand in hand with rape culture, the responses the Chronicle received while reporting on sexual assault in Austin reflected a commitment to victim safety across the board. Dolores Laparte-Litton, a Sex Crime Victim Services counselor with APD, was no exception. “If I’m passed out in this room, it does not give anyone the right to rape me,” Laparte-Litton told the Chronicle.

And this is indicative of the Austin Police Department’s commitment to a “victim-centered” response in sexual assault cases, a model that could be a key part of encouraging higher rates of reporting for this crime.

Sexual assault is one of the most chronically under-reported crimes in Austin and across the country. Studies consistently find that survivors are highly unlikely to report their sexual assault to law enforcement. Both law enforcement and advocates interviewed by the Chronicle estimated that in 2014, only 10-15% of sexual assaults in Austin were reported.

While legislators in Congress pursue potentially damaging policies focused on increasing reporting by requiring it for students seeking any kind of punitive actions on the part of the university, APD’s focus on understanding and supporting survivors of sexual assault is a real example of local efforts that could truly increase trust between survivors and law enforcement. One of the biggest changes, law enforcement shared with the Chronicle, was a shift in the definition of success.

SafePlace Executive Director Melinda Cantu explained the most important of these changes to the Chronicle:

    It’s important to remember that for rape survivors there’s no one answer for how they heal. We need to hear victims when they say what they need. For law enforcement, a lot of times justice and healing comes in the form of prosecution, but dropping out doesn’t make the survivor wrong.

This victim-centered model is supported by a commitment to coordination that is unique to Austin. For the last decade, APD has worked with SafePlace, Austin/Travis County SANEs, Travis County Sheriff’s Office, and prosecutors, along with other individuals and organizations, through the Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT). The focus of this organization is straightforward: to improve the local response to sexual assault.

This coordination has led to a more streamlined approach to sexual assault in Austin, as well as increasing respect between the multiple organizations that are all focused on helping survivors and reducing the incidence of assaults in Austin, the Chronicle reports. But addressing sexual assault in Austin doesn’t end with this coalition, or the victim-centered approach by law enforcement.

District Attorneys, advocates, and law enforcement agree, sexual assault will continue to be prevalent in Austin and across the country until we begin to push back against a culture that encourages sexual violence and continues to place blame on the victim.

“We’re finally at a place where we do a decent job of teaching girls they don’t have to be princesses, but we have not yet started teaching boys to not be perpetrators,” LeBlanc explained to the Chronicle,”We have to change the culture fed to young men.”

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About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

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