This past Sunday the White House released an ad campaign to address sexual assault on college campuses. It uses celebrities to promote speaking up if you suspect a sexual assault is in the works. But even with renewed awareness efforts, Sexual Assault remains the most underreported crime in the United States. Wyoming is no exception.
Erin Valenti, 21, is advocating for better protections for future victims of Sexual Assault. She testified in front of Wyoming’s Joint Judiciary Committee earlier in September, and it agreed to support a bill to make it easier for sexual assault victims to get restraining orders against their alleged attackers. The full legislature will consider the measure in January.
Six months ago Valenti was part of a bachelorette party, hitting the town in Laramie. At the end of the night, she said she ended up at a house with a group of people - including a man she had just met that night.
“Basically my perpetrator blackmailed me into going back to his apartment,” she said.
At his apartment, Valenti said the acquaintance held a gun to her head and raped her. After getting home the next morning, she reported the incident to the police.
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, about 65-percent of sexual assaults are never reported. Wyoming saw 136 reports of forcible rapes last year. If we apply national statistics to those reports and to Wyoming’s female population, then between 300 and 600 cases of rape went unreported in the state.
Valenti pursued a criminal case against her alleged attacker. He was charged with four offenses, including kidnapping, rape in the first degree, and aggravated burglary. Prosecutors pointed out that it might be difficult to get a conviction on a rape charge, so they negotiated a guilty plea on the burglary charge, and the alleged attacker is now facing 5 to 25 years in prison.
Becca Fisher is the director of the Albany County SAFE Project, a non-profit organization aimed at aiding survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. She said getting convictions has been tough.
“We haven’t in our community had a ton of success in prosecuting these cases. These cases are often you know basically he said she said and so they can be challenging to prosecute,” she said.
In fact, only about 3-percent of rape cases ever lead to any prison time being served.
“And I do think that’s a deterrent to reporting in the first place is a lot of survivors don’t feel that they’re going to get justice necessarily from participating in that process,” Fisher said.
Valenti said she got half justice.
“This aggravated burglary is a serious felony but it makes me so angry because he didn’t have to take responsibility for what he did to me. For me it wasn’t the fact that he stole a gun it’s the fact that he raped me,” said Valenti.
Valenti is part of the most vulnerable population for these assaults. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey shows that nearly 80% of female rape victims are assaulted before the age of 25.
Between Laramie County Community College and The University of Wyoming, Laramie has one of the largest populations of young people in the state. Prevention and awareness efforts concerning sexual assault for young adults are increasing here, including the University’s STOP Violence program. But despite their growing efforts, reporting rates remain low.
Megan Selheim heads the STOP Violence Program. She applauds the White House’s new “It’s On Us” campaign, which released a video last week that features celebrities promoting bystander intervention. The message: “if you see something say something.”
“And that’s why we’re continuing to build more interactive and skill building opportunities for students to get the info they need,” said Selheim.
Selheim said that survivors like Erin Valenti who choose to come forward could show help show Wyomingites that sexual assault does happen here. But Valenti said telling her story can be difficult.
“I get flashbacks, I feel the gun on the back of my head all the time, there’s always this dark pressure right here, I hear his voice.”
She’s taking healing one day at a time.
“And that starts with the little things from my kitty to it becoming fall. But it’s hard and I know it’s going to take a really long time for that trust for humanity to come back.”