June 23, 2010

Sexual assault reports decline as victims seeking services rise

While the number of victims seeking sexual assault services is rising, the Office of Justice Assistance reports that sexual assaults reported to law enforcement in Wisconsin dropped in 2009, with two counties, Iron and Buffalo, reporting zero sexual assault cases.

The decrease from 2008 wasn’t huge — only 17 fewer reports than the year before — but it fits a trend of decreasing reports that the state has seen over the past three years, OJA said. The largest decline was seen in 2008, when there were 531 fewer reported sexual assaults than the year before.

Statewide, OJA said there were 4,633 sexual assaults reported in 2009. Sixteen percent of the reports involved male victims.

A 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said 2.5 percent of women and 0.9 percent of men experienced unwanted sexual activity in the previous 12 months, although not all such incidents are necessarily assaults.

Kelly Anderson, executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, said it’s unlikely that a county would have zero incidents of sexual assault. In addition, she said reports to law enforcement aren’t necessarily a good gauge of the actual number of sexual assaults. The value of the OJA report is it pinpoints counties and communities that are successful in encouraging reporting while highlighting low-reporting communities, she said.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism released a report that found estimated rapes outnumbered reports by a margin of 17 to 1 on University of Wisconsin campuses. The report was produced in collaboration with the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, which conducted a year-long investigation of the problem across the nation’s campuses.

Some victim service providers in Wisconsin have seen as much as a 400 percent increase in the number of sexual assault service requests from the year before. Of those who sought services, 69 percent did not report their assaults to law enforcement, the OJA said.

The Dane County Rape Crisis Center has also seen a rise in service requests over the last few years. But Anderson is hesitant to say this means an increase in actual sexual assaults.

“We work with victims for counseling whose experiences could have been in the last hour or 20 years ago,” Anderson said. “An increase in the services we provided in the last year could be from people under stress, maybe financial stress or a job loss, which causes them to need support for an assault that maybe happened a long time ago.”

Victims often don’t report such attacks to police due to low rates of prosecution of perpetrators and fear of reliving a traumatic experience, UW-Madison Health Services Violence Prevention Specialist Carmen Hotvedt said.