Lynn Ryan didn’t tell anybody for 20 years. She didn’t know whom to turn to. She was hurt, confused, and flooded with feelings of guilt and shame.
She was raped. At just 16 years old, her virginity was stolen by a man who didn’t take no for an answer.
Ryan said she knew the rape had an effect on her, but she didn’t know how large that effect was.
“I held it in for 20 years and went through two divorces and a very turbulent life,” she said. Today she understands how important it is for survivors of rape to have options in dealing with the traumas associated with sexual assaults.
“I had no place to turn back in those days,” she said. “I want to make sure we get the word out that now there is help.”
Now over the age of 50, Ryan works as the coordinator of support services for Sexual Assault Response Services (SARS) of southern Maine. She works to offer rape and sexual assault survivors the help she didn’t have when she needed it most.
Ryan’s case is not rare. According to FBI statistics one in three women will be raped in her lifetime. The National Victim Center and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center reports that forcible rape of women over the age of 18 occurs in the United States at a rate of 1.3 per minute; 78 per hour; 1872 per day; and 683,000 per year.
Though sexual assaults are committed against men and women of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds, some experts agree that risks may be unusually high on college campuses.
“Unfortunately [college] is ripe for misunderstandings and for more malicious assaults to take place,” said Janis Mallon, senior clinical psychologist at University Counseling Services. She said many students come from a very controlled environment and college is one of the first times they make their own choices.
The presence of alcohol is a major factor in sexual assaults.
“This is an age when experimentation with substances is common,” said Mallon. “And we know for a fact that a very large percentage [of rapes] takes place in combination with alcohol or drugs.”
Beth Martin, coordinator of the Women’s Resource Center, said she has heard of men who bring freshman women to parties to prey upon their inexperience.
“One of the most vulnerable times for a female college student is the first month or two of their first year at college,” Martin said. “It’s a combination of naivete and the predatory behavior of some men.”
There have been three reported sexual assaults at the University since the beginning of the fall semester. Two of those have occurred in the last two months. Last year five were reported.
Sexual assaults are highly underreported. The U.S. Justice Department reports that just 16 percent of all rapes are ever reported to law enforcement.
“Many people don’t want to report it,” said Jim Daniels, manager of sexual assault programs for USM Police. “It may be because of embarrassment, family-there’s a whole host of reasons.”
According to Mallon, it’s not a surprise that many rape survivors don’t go to the police.
“It’s almost universal for people who’ve been assaulted to ask, `Was this my fault?’ or `Did I do something to encourage it?'” said Mallon. “They say `Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to his room’ or `I shouldn’t have been drinking.'”
Mallon explained that many people who share such ideas assume that it was somehow the victim’s fault she was raped.
In addition to victim blaming, many rape survivors don’t press charges because they don’t want to go through the legal system.
“The legal system is geared towards not wrongly convicting a guilty person,” said Daniels. “So there’s a much higher burden of proof needed to convict.” He said many survivors are afraid of being cross-examined in court and even having to recreate the assault.
Reporting a sexual assault is especially difficult when the survivor knows the attacker.
“Force is one component of sexual assault but it’s not the only thing. It doesn’t have to be a stranger jumping out of the bushes,” said Daniels. “Most sexual assaults are acquaintance attacks. In fact, 80 to 85 percent of all rapes are acquaintance attacks, according to Daniels.
Often times if a rape survivor knows she’ll see her attacker again, it becomes very difficult to report it.
“USM is a very small community,” said Martin. “To come out and say, `He raped me,’ there’s going to be a whole community that says, `What are you talking about?'”
Of the three sexual assault cases reported to the USM Police Department this year, all three were acquaintance attacks, and none of the survivors wanted to press charges.
“After going through an assault a person may be in shock and be so overwhelmed it’s difficult to think clearly,” said Mallon. “But it’s important to let people know what the options are.”
Daniels said when someone comes to him to report a sexual assault he first asks the survivor what he or she wants to do. There is the option of pursuing the matter in court, or going through the Office of Community Standards, where the burden of proof isn’t as great. Other times Daniels simply refers the survivor to other resources such as University Counseling Services or SARS.
Both Mallon and Daniels said it is important for survivors to know they can always change their mind when deciding on the best course of action.
“Counseling can be helpful,” said Mallon. “But many people aren’t ready right away.” She said that most often survivors choose to use emergency services such as SARS.
SARS offers a 24-hour hotline for survivors, and even friends and family of survivors who may have questions. Often times survivors will use the hotline repeatedly, according to Ryan, who serves as the coordinator of support services of SARS.
“At 3 in the morning when they need someone to talk to because they can’t sleep after having a flashback they can talk to us,” she said.
In addition SARS will accompany a survivor to the hospital, crime scene, court system, or police station. “It’s really important for victims to know they’re not alone,” said Ryan.
SARS offers support groups for men and women who have been rape and sexual assault victims.
SARS also works to educate the community about many of the misconceptions associated with sexual assault, such as victim blaming.
“People need to learn that when a woman or a man says no, that’s what it means, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are,” said Ryan.
News Editor Steve Peoples can be contacted at [email protected]