Sexual assault awareness key to understanding, lawyer says

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Baylor has held several opportunities for students to get involved and educated on the issue. Although the month is ending, sexual assault awareness remains relevant.

Justin Smith, 2010 Baylor Law School graduate and current partner vat Sloan, Bagley, Hatcher & Perry Law Firm in Longview, has tried several sexual abuse and assault cases. Smith said he believes it is a much bigger problem than people realize.

“It is great that we have Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but we don’t need a month, we need 12 months,” Smith said. “We need 365 days of awareness and support for victims. Victims are affected for much longer than a month, and we need to be aware all the time.”

Smith said he is glad America is recognizing sexual assault as a problem now, but he believes sexual assault awareness had been virtually nonexistent until recently. Specifically, he cites the realization of abuse within the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts as helping open up the discussion about sexual assault. Despite this, Smith said he doesn’t want the conversation to stop there.

“Our culture is very reactive when it comes to sexual assault,” Smith said. “We wait for some big news scandal to happen ,and then we’ll talk about it. We never dare to take off our blinders and look outside the context it is presented to us in. We need to change from being reactive to being proactive, and we need to change now.”

Smith said he believes that because sexual assault can be an uncomfortable and difficult topic, people don’t talk about it, but he believes that talking about it is the only way to prevent the problem.

“The first step to solving the problem of sexual assault is recognizing that it exists much more than we think it does, and that it is a fundamental and pervasive problem in our country,” Smith said.

Smith said it can be hard to prosecute a sexual offender because a vast amount of the trauma is psychological and there is often little to no physical evidence of the abuse. Smith stressed the importance of society to recognize that there can be an assault without physical evidence of one.

“Tissue may heal, but trauma remains,” Smith said. “Sexual assault is a gross violation that leaves permanent scars.”

The fear of there not being physical evidence and, in turn, the fear of not being believed creates a cycle of not reporting sexual assaults, according to Smith.

“It is terrible when a victim reports and they are essentially the ones put on trial,” Smith said. “The standard response is sex is always consensual, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Girls are accused of lying and being too promiscuous. That is awful, and it only perpetuates the cycle.”

According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, more than 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported —making it one of the least documented crimes in America.

Smith expressed his dissatisfaction with the term “sexual assault” because he said it belittles the offense. He said the term covers a wide variety of offenses but does not encapsulate how terrible it is.

“A victim of sexual assault carries that weight with them through every stage of their life,” Smith said. “It changes your identity, and it affects everyone around you. Essentially, it is a death. The life they would have had is completely gone, and their trajectory has changed forever.”

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union conducted a study and reported that 95 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported. In 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault reported than one in five female students experience sexual assault during their college career.

Comfort freshman Samantha Heczko said students should talk to each other more about sexual assault and the issue of interpersonal violence on campus. She said it’s sad that it’s an issue that keeps coming up at Baylor and on college campuses across the nation. She encourages students not to ignore it, but instead to talk about the issue in order to bring the problem to light.

“The only people who can change this campus is us,” Heczko said. “We need to educate each other. We only really listen to our friends anyway, so for sexual assault awareness to be effective, it needs to come from us.”