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Under Wraps: Most Sexual Assaults Go Unreported

Even as the sexual assault rate falls in New Jersey, more than half of all crimes aren't reported to authorities. Learn more in part one of Patch's series on National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Every two minutes. That’s how often someone is sexually assaulted in America.

When you really consider the magnitude of that statistic, it’s almost overwhelming. Every two minutes, perhaps the most personal of all crimes is committed against someone in this country. Every two minutes of the day, someone’s life is irrevocably changed.

That’s 207,754 people sexually assaulted a year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. And every one of those people has a personal story. The teenager terrorized almost nightly by her stepfather. The man who suppressed years of abuse for so long that he nearly exploded from the accumulating emotions. The woman who still hides her sexual abuse from her mother.

There is positive news in time for National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, marked throughout April. Incidence of sexual assault continues to fall nationwide, declining 60 percent over the past two decades. New Jersey follows that trend as well, with a drop of 1,277 reported rapes and attempted rapes in 2001 to 985 in 2010, the last year statewide statistics were available.

But those numbers hide a larger problem around the crime: the vast number of sexual assaults that go unreported—an estimated 54 percent, according to the Justice Department.

“While the reporting rate has gone up over the last 15 years or so, the majority of rapes are still not reported to police,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization. “It’s understandable from the victim’s standpoint, but it’s troubling from the community’s standpoint.”

Sexual assault statistics are plagued with uncertainty. The Justice Department creates its estimates through its National Crime Victimization Survey, which asks respondents if they’ve ever been the victim of a crime and, if so, did they report it. Those figures are compared against actual reports.

It’s imperfect, and experts know it.

“It does a fairly good job at estimating the number of rapes not reported,” Berkowitz says. “Its biggest weakness is that it covers only people 12 and older, so it doesn’t cover crimes against children.”

That means there’s no way of knowing if the reported two rapes in Marlboro in  2009 and the 66 reported in Monmouth County in 2010 are the number that actually occurred. And without knowing that, it can be hard to know how big a problem sexual assault is, what services to offer victims and who needs help.

Many victims stay silent on sexual assault

The nature of sexual assault plays into the under-reporting problem. More than a robbery or carjacking, for example, sexual assault victims often feel ashamed about what happened to them.

“During the abuse I felt disgusted, sick, worthless, like no one would love me and as though the whole world knew about it, but no one wanted to say or do anything about it,” says Ruth Velez, who accuses her stepfather of sexually abusing her throughout her teens. “And to this day, I feel still that way at times.”

Some former victims even feel complicit.

That’s what happened to Rhett Hackett, a Sicklerville man who endured five years of sexual abuse at the hands of an adult neighbor. Hackett, who remained silent into adulthood, says the perpetrator used typical grooming behavior, telling the teen what they were doing was normal, but also that both would get in trouble if he told anyone.

“There is an instant sense of complicity that you were an accomplice to this, and that’s what they sell you on in regards to allowing it to continue,” Hackett says.

“After the first incident, I probably wanted to (tell). I just didn’t know how to approach it. After the first incident, no. By that time, you were already in the web,” Hackett adds. “There’s a very early onset of guilt and shame, but not nearly at the magnitude as when you become an adult.”

There’s no one way to increase reporting of rapes, experts say. Educational campaigns, especially those that reassure victims they’re not at fault, can help. So can advertising support and law enforcement resources widely and often. (Click here for a list of local resources if you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted.)

But ultimately, it can come down to who the victim first confides in.

“The thing that’s going to influence them most is the reaction of the people they’re closest to,” Berkowitz says. “If the first person they disclose to, usually a friend or family member, reacts poorly, that’s going to discourage them from reporting to police.”

This is part one of a series Patch will run during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

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