'We need to do better': Utah leaders call for better support for sexual assault victims

It wasn't until after a suicide attempt following his graduation that Ash — a sexual assault survivor — was able to access resources to begin to heal from and process the assault.

Standing before a crowd gathered on the Utah Capitol steps, he expressed gratitude for the organizations and advocates in those moments.

"I stand before you now as a healing member of the queer community who works a job, volunteers their time planning trans events, giving back to the unsheltered community and much more. Thank you," he said.

The crowd was filled with local leaders, law enforcement, advocates and survivors dressed in denim. The attire of the crowd represented Denim Day, a day of action held on the last Wednesday of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The day began as a campaign after a ruling in 1988 by the Italian Supreme Court that overturned the conviction in a high-profile rape trial. The court reasoned that a victim who was wearing "tight" jeans must've consented or aided in their removal. After the court's decision, members of the Italian parliament wore jeans to protest the decision.

"I just want to reiterate, so there isn't any confusion, clothing does not equal consent. Rapists are the only cause for rape and that's why we're here today," said Nick Arteaga, prevention coordinator at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Wearing jeans became an international symbol of protest regarding victim shaming and blaming. States across the United States have also recognized Denim Day in April.

"Denim Day aims to expose and defy the erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual violence. Excuses allow the perpetuation of victim-blaming and upholding of rape culture in our communities," added Liliana Olvera-Arbon, executive director at the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

How does Utah rank for sexual violence?

Utah has continually struggled with rates of sexual violence higher than the national average, according to Utah Department of Health data. Rape is the only violent crime for which Utah ranks higher than the national average.

In Utah, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 25 men experience rape or attempted rape during their lifetime, the data shows. Additionally, nearly 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lives.

"We must recognize the reality of what is happening in our state," said Olvera-Arbon.

Rates of victimization are especially high among marginalized groups such as those who belong to the LGBTQ community or people of color.

Among those increasingly affected are Native American women, with 56.1% of Alaskan Native or American Native women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. Violence against Native women has gained attention through the years; the Utah Legislature created a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force in 2020.

Salt Lake City and Utah rank in the top 10 among U.S. cities and states for the highest numbers of missing and murder cases involving women, according to the task force's latest report.

"This is the place where we stand. Where Utah — the majority of people — practices love, compassion, understanding. How about we show some of that to our Native American brothers and sisters in this state who are affected by going missing and trafficked and murdered because they were solicited by nontribal members?" said Yolanda Francisco-Nez, executive director at the violence prevention advocacy organization Restoring Ancestral Winds.

'A collective societal failure'

While some may believe the outdated attitudes expressed by the Italian Supreme Court have changed, advocates say the problem is still prevalent. An impassioned Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill acknowledged the ways society has failed survivors of sexual violence.

For every 100 victims of sexual violence, only 12 will report it, Gill said Wednesday. Only a handful of those 12 cases will make it to Gill's desk, and even fewer will result in a prosecution, he added.

"Eighty-eight will not report it because they know that it's not safe. They know that they will not be believed. They know sadly because of our collective societal failure, that the trauma of reporting is greater than the assault itself," said Gill. "The conditions that we have created in our community is that you who has been assaulted would much rather suffer in silence than to exercise your voice because that pain, that grief is more safer than you actually reporting it."

While Utah's culture is one of optimism, it also has to be one of realism, said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

"Let's be real in this community about what happens often," she said. "This sad situation of sexual assault is happening in places that we don't want to admit or talk about and we've got to change that."

A call for change

Multiple speakers called on several agencies to create systemic changes to aid in a change in the overall culture of how sexual violence is prevented and/or prosecuted.

State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, called on other lawmakers to provide more funding and support for survivors of sexual violence.

"We spend so much on rehabilitating people, rehabilitating people because they've violated someone. I think that rehabilitation is important but what about the people that are left behind? What about the survivors?" asked Romero. "It just doesn't mean when an incident happened we help that individual and it's over. The trauma that someone experienced because they were violated lasts a lifetime."

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While Romero called on legislators, another speaker called on law enforcement to increase trauma-informed training.

"Sexual assault is so high in Utah and Utah continues to protect perpetrators and not believe survivors," said a representative for Utah's Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources. "I demand more training for local (police departments) because, to this day, I have yet to see trauma-informed care in working with police in ER rooms after the violence has occurred."

The conversation was welcomed by Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, who expressed a desire to do better and learn.

"We have work to do on our side, but we do believe you, and our whole goal is to ensure that the perpetrators are held accountable, not our survivors," she said. "This is not your fault and we want to put a stop to all violence."

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