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What Utah leaders, advocates say can help sexual assault victims: ‘We believe you’

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, left, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Liliana Olvera-Arbon, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera listen to speakers at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault building in Salt Lake City to mark Denim Day, an event designed to bring awareness to sexual assault on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, left, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Liliana Olvera-Arbon, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera listen to speakers at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault building in Salt Lake City to mark Denim Day, an event designed to bring awareness to sexual assault on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
Ashley Imlay, KSL.com

When sexual assault survivor Alli Fields told her friends what had just happened to her, she said their reaction downplayed the gravity of the situation. They thought it just sounded like a bad date.

“There was no, ‘You have to report that, you’ve got to tell somebody, that’s not OK,’” Fields recalled.

It wasn’t until she talked to a male friend that she realized what happened was rape and was not simply “a really crappy date.”

“That was the first time that somebody had told me what had happened to me. And I think it’s ridiculous that I didn’t even understand that, because we don’t talk about it,” Fields said Wednesday as she, other survivors, local leaders and prevention advocates met at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault building in Salt Lake City to mark “Denim Day.”

Denim Day started as a campaign soon after a ruling in 1998 by the Italian Supreme Court that overturned a rape conviction. The conviction was thrown out due to a court justice’s belief that because the victim — an 18-year-old driving student who was assaulted by her instructor — wore tight jeans, she must have helped him remove her jeans, “thereby implying consent,” said Liliana Olvera-Arbon, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, sporting jeans “in solidarity” with survivors, said: “We know that survivors are very, very brave.”

“We really need to address this problem from a public health perspective, and we need to approach sexual assault on an individual, personal, community and institutional level,” Wilson said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, left, speaks during Denim Day, an event designed to bring awareness to sexual assault at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, as Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, right, listens.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, left, speaks during Denim Day, an event designed to bring awareness to sexual assault at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, as Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, right, listens.
Ashley Imlay, KSL.com

In Utah, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 transgender individuals will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 men will experience some form of sexual violence, Olvera-Arbon noted.

Community leader Carol Shifflett noted that Black women are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence, as 1 in 5 will be affected by sexual assault compared to 1 in 6 nationwide. She said that for every 15 Black women who are raped, only one woman reports it.

“The pandemic of sexual assault and intimate partner violence is not new,” Olvera-Arbon said. “Today, we gather here to say enough. We can prevent sexual violence from happening in our communities. Enough victim-blaming. Today, we stand with survivors and say we believe you, and it is not your fault.”

The criminal justice system continues evolving to help victims, according to Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera.

Leaders realize that “when we take a sexual assault case, we need well-trained detectives who can handle these cases,” she said.

When called to respond to a sexual assault in the county, a patrol officer takes the initial report. But now, those officers “just take the basic information,” allowing a detective to follow up with a more thorough investigation, Rivera said.

“We have been working hard on building trust between the survivors and law enforcement. That is very important to us because we want to make sure that when we provide a case to the district attorney’s office, it’s a good, solid case, and they can follow through and get justice for the survivors,” Rivera said.

Sometimes family members, school officials or friends report rapes instead of the victims themselves. Rivera urged friends and family members of survivors to “say something” if they see something, as sometimes survivors don’t feel comfortable coming forward.

“We want to say that we will believe you. We have to start by believing first and then continue on with helping to assist and do a proper investigation for the case,” the sheriff said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill noted that the majority of sexual assault victims are under age 30. In Utah, 88 out of 100 sexual assault victims don’t come forward. Out of those 12 who do report, charges statistically get filed in just four cases, he said.

“If we as a community will not make it safe for 88 victims to come forward and report against their perpetrator, what does it say about us as a people, as a community? Of the 12 that will come forward, historically, secondary victimization and secondary case attrition occurs because we were using the wrong methodology of blaming the victim, of interrogating the victim, making sure she did not contribute to the issue,” Gill said, emphasizing the need for trauma-informed responses to survivors.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, noted that many victims don’t report their assault because they fear they won’t be believed.

“And that’s why we’re here today, talking about Denim Day. Because we’re here as elected officials telling people of sexual assault, people who have been sexually harassed, that we believe you. For so long in our culture, we’ve victim-shamed. We’ve victim-blamed,” Romero said, explaining that she’s worked to change that and promote trauma-informed training for officers.

She said the state needs to change its laws “when it comes to affirmative consent, and what affirmative consent is.”

“Because right now, even if someone reports sexual assault … a lot of these cases can’t be prosecuted because the standard is too high,” she said.

Schools do have consent education, she said, referring to a curriculum put into place in 2019 that teaches affirmative consent. But teachers need to be educated on how to properly teach it, Romero said.

Fields urged communities to believe survivors and to become comfortable talking about sexual violence in order to prevent it.