On the steps of City Hall Friday afternoon, City officials, police officers, and community activists stood in solidarity with all of those who have fallen victim to rape or sexual assault in San Antonio and across the globe.
According to a 2015 University of Texas study, two in five women and one in five men have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. The same study states that only 9% of rapes are actually reported, and the leading cause of this is the victim’s fear of not being believed by their peers.
“Many times when survivors have found the courage to tell someone they were raped or sexually assaulted, they are not believed, and that reaction can negatively impact the survivor,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3).
That’s why Viagran and The Rape Crisis Center launched the “Start by Believing” campaign in San Antonio on Friday, to raise awareness of the strong effect that someone’s response to a rape and sexual assault claim has on the victim, and in turn, on their respective community.
The campaign involves community members signing their names to “take the pledge” to approach reported situations of sexual violence by first believing the alleged victim. San Antonio is just the third city in Texas to join the movement, along with 130 other communities across the U.S. and Mexico.
The launch of the initiative coincides with Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in April, and will hopefully be the first of many steps the city takes in efforts to change the way rape and sexual assault is dealt with.
“This is about the compassion and respect a victim of rape receives,” Viagran said.
Sometimes, speaking out against aggressors can be costly, which is often a deterrent to victims to share their stories. In recent history, there have been several reported instances of rape or sexual violence that that were combatted with disbelief or blame of the alleged victim, most notably in cases that involve U.S. university students.
In January, a case involving former-Florida State University football star Jameis Winston, who was accused of raping a female student in 2012, was settled in court for $950,000. Winston was never arrested or charged for any crime, and besides receiving only a small portion of the settlement, the female student reportedly received criticism and backlash for her accusations from the start, causing her to eventually leave the university.
But fostering support can make all the difference.
“Every single one of us can give compassion,” said Miriam Elizondo, co-executive director of The Rape Crisis Center. “Imagine if your loved one, friend, or colleague saw that you took the pledge and what that would do for them to know that you’re a safe person to speak to.”
James Meadours, a survivor of sexual assault for more than 30 years, shared his testimony at City Hall, spoke firsthand about the power of trust between friends, coworkers, or family members.
“I was too ashamed to tell anyone about my sexual assault because I did not have anyone to believe me,” he said. After his most recent assault in 2005, “I got the power and the confidence to find a friend who took the time to listen to me and help me.”
That support eventually gave Meadours the courage to take his aggressor to court.
Medical professionals have come to find that the aftermath of sexual assault, which can include mental, psychological, or emotional damage to a victim, can also have a direct effect on their physical health outcomes, said Kindra Clark, a Bexar County nurse practitioner.
As “medical providers, we absolutely belong in this discussion, we absolutely belong in this fight,” said Clark, who works for The Monarch Project, which has served nearly 300 sexual assault and rape victims in the last year. “One of the most important things we can do is to start by believing.”
The Monarch Project has seen significant results in the treatment of the side effects from a traumatizing experience like sexual assault or rape, Clark added. But treating a systemic issue like sexual violence for the long term, Elizondo said, will require examining the issue at its roots.
“We need to work on primary prevention to change attitudes and beliefs about violence, about power and control, genderism, equality, those things that we know fuel a society of violence,” she said. “If we don’t make those changes, then violence is still going to happen because someone has been taught that one person is more important than the other.”
The Monarch Project, The Rape Crisis Center, and SAPD’s Family Assistance Crisis Team (F.A.C.T.) are just a few of the resources offered in San Antonio for victims of rape and sexual violence. Viagran hopes that the “Start by Believing Campaign” will alert more people to those resources, and to the need for a change in dialogue.
“When you have the police department, the mayor, civic leadership get behind this and say ‘we’re going to start by believing,’ it’s going to take that shift in our conversations to just get that through to the whole community,” she said. “What we’re hopefully going to see is more people coming out and sharing their story and maybe we can look and see where our partners are for those people to get the help that they need.”
Elizondo agreed that enacting a change in issues like sexual violence requires a community effort.
“This is a way to get the entire community involved,” she said. “We’re not going to end sexual violence with just the 65 of our employees. It’s going to take the whole community to change something.”
*Top image: Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) gives remarks in support of the “Start By Believing” campaign in both English and Spanish at City Hall. Photo by Bria Woods.