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Myths and facts on sexual assaults

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- It's time to take a stand.

Installations around the world raise awareness regarding the alarming trend of sexual assault across the United States. This year's National Sexual Assault Awareness Month theme encourages people to "Stand up against sexual assault...make a difference."

Air Force base sexual assault prevention and response offices seeks to call into action all those touched by sexual assault -- victims, survivors, relatives, law enforcement officers and legal advocates and those in our local community -- to show support and honor those victimized by this invasive crime.

Sexual assault is a crime that is preventable. That's why it's important to raise awareness of the tactics perpetrators like to use on men and women. Unfortunately, it's also the hardest crime to prove, particularly if the victim knows the perpetrator. Research shows sexual assaults by acquaintances remain the most damaging type of assault psychologically due to the crime's many unique factors.

What do we know about sexual assault? Here are some of the common facts and myths about the crime and those who commit it.

MYTH: "Strangers commit most sexual assault crimes."

FACT: The "non-stranger" -- a date, co-worker, casual acquaintance, relative or spouse - is the most likely perpetrator of a sexual assault. According to results from the 2003 National Crime Victimization Survey, "Nearly 70 percent of victims know their attacker."

MYTH: "The victim didn't physically fight back or scream for help, so it must mean they agreed to the act."

FACT: Victims often respond to this type of attack with three natural reactions: freeze, flight or fight. In fact, most victims initially "freeze" due to the shock of this betrayal and fear being physically injured. Some victims report feelings of pending death, even if the perpetrator didn't threaten them this way. The resulting shock sends the victim into a pattern of confusion -- the feeling of being taken captive. This is another reason victims have a hard time trusting others after an assault.

MYTH: "If there are no visible injuries (cuts, bruising and scratches) investigators or medical staff can readily see, it must mean it didn't happen."

FACT: Sexual assaults include psychological and physical injuries. The perpetrator uses only enough physical force such as body weight (instrumental violence) or psychological and emotional tactics like guilt and shame or threats of the victim losing their job, getting transferred or other terrorization to get them to comply. The psychological tactics are used on victims in an attempt to "scare" them into silence.

Rapists sometimes plan their attacks by using alcohol or "date rape" drugs to incapacitate the victim, and there's a certain level of stalking involved beforehand. Perpetrators try to isolate the victim from their friends, family or a trusted wingman to commit the assault.

Typically, these criminals don't use a knife, gun or extreme physical violence and are often opportunistic perpetrators.

MYTH: The alleged perpetrator wasn't charged, it must mean it was a false report.

FACT: An "unfounded" or "unsubstantiated" statement in the investigative report doesn't mean the assault didn't occur. These words are often misinterpreted. It actually means investigators couldn't find sufficient witnesses or evidence to prove or disprove the allegation.

This is when victims of assault need your support. They are likely to feel a deep injustice by the perpetrator but also by the law enforcement and judicial system.

MYTH: "Collecting evidence for a sexual assault crime is the same as any crime."

FACT: A sexual assault forensic exam should be conducted as soon as possible by a sexual assault nurse examiner or a physician or nurse with the necessary training in discovering, collecting and documenting evidence of the smallest and hidden injuries.

MYTH: "Sexual assaults only happen to women because men can fight back physically and prevent this type of attack."

FACT: Sexual assault is an equal opportunity crime for women and men. Research statistics indicate that one in three military women, one in four women in general society and one in 33 men are sexually assaulted. Alcohol and drugs can incapacitate men as easily as women.

MYTH: "You cannot prevent a sexual assault, it's just bad luck."

FACT: You can empower yourself and those around you when you're aware of the tactics sexual perpetrators use. These criminals are less likely to assault someone who is aware of their tactics because perpetrators count on their victim's innocence and vulnerability.

MYTH: "I'm not entitled to know the status of the investigation until it's completed."

FACT: If you report a sexual assault, you have the right to be informed by investigators of the case's status, including if they're waiting on evidence to be processed. You are not informed of the specifics, including who investigators are questioning. You also have the right to proper medical care and counseling whether it's spiritual or emotional.

If you or someone you know needs help, whether it's referrals for professional counseling, medical care, legal information or a support group, call your base's sexual assault response coordinator.

The Air Force remains committed to fighting these inexcusable assaults, and those who commit these crimes face swift, severe legal and command-directed ramifications.

It's time to take a stand.