Preventing, Reporting and Surviving Sexual Assault

knowmyname“When a woman is assaulted, one of the first questions people ask is, did you say no? This question assumes that the answer was always yes, and that it is her job to revoke the agreement. To defuse the bomb she was given. But why are they allowed to touch us until we physically fight them off? Why is the door open until we have to slam it shut.”
- Chanel Miller, Know My Name

You may have heard of the name Brock Turner – the Stamford swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster at a fraternity party in 2015. The case garnered international attention and is often referred to as a textbook example of sexual assault and rape. Mr. Turner, an affluent and white 19-year-old, infamously served only three months of his already insignificant six-month jail sentence. During the trial, the victim was protected by the alias Emily Doe, and her powerful victim impact statement made headlines after it was read in court in 2016 and later published by Buzzfeed News.

In 2019, Emily Doe came forward as Chanel Miller, the survivor of Brock Turner’s assault. She published Know My Name, a forthcoming and honest memoir of her experience of the assault and the tumultuous and devastating aftermath of her rape. The book is both a beautifully written memoir and a haunting look into how the American criminal justice system treats victims and those who perpetrate sexual violence.

On Wednesday, April 21, the Scarsdale Safe Coalition, led by Youth Outreach Worker Lauren Pomerantz, held a virtual community discussion about the impact of sexual violence and the resources available to victims. The discussion was guided by topics from Know My Name, and featured panelists Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah, Westchester County Second Deputy District Attorney Fred Green and Sarah FitzSimmons, a social worker and survivor of sexual assault.

District Attorney Rocah has served as a federal prosecutor for over 16 years, where she prioritized victim-centered, trauma-informed policies. She has outlined a comprehensive and ambitious vision for this work while she serves as Westchester’s District Attorney. She opened the Safe Coalition discussion by sharing that her mother was a victim of a violent rape before she was born, and that in 2010, her parents’ home was violently invaded. During the break-in, her then 85-year-old mother was sexually assaulted. At the time, even though Mimi Rocah was a "big-time federal prosecutor,” she “felt powerless to help her.” DA Rocah described that she was asked by an officer handling her parents’ case if she thought her mother was making up the assault. She stated that “this is what we are still dealing with in the criminal justice system… it is something I think about every day when dealing with victims.”

Sarah FitzSimmons followed by bravely sharing her story of being sexually assaulted while in graduate school. After seeking help from the on-campus police, Ms. FitzSimmons was told that her case would likely fail. She shared how the police did not believe her, and that the university sided with the perpetrator. She highlighted that she was made to sit in the same room as the perpetrator over and over again, and that her trauma and her story were not taken seriously. Reflecting on the assault, Ms. FitzSimmons states that, “it lives with you forever… it is still a part of my everyday being.”

Finally, Fred Green introduced himself as a longtime advocate for victim-impact and trauma-informed work with the District Attorney’s office. He ran the Adult Sex Crimes Bureau for 15 years and now oversees all Special Victims cases. He emphasized how important it is for victims to know “they have someone who will fight for them, listen to them, and involve them in the process” and stated that he has “the most amazing job. My passion and belief in this kind of work continues year after year.”

To begin the discussion, Ms. Pomerantz asked the panel what they thought was effective in terms of preventing sexual assaults.

Ms. FitzSimmons stressed that prevention starts from “the culture we are creating… [it] perpetuates the idea that it’s okay to speak and act [in derogatory ways] towards women.” She stressed that we must raise children to be respectful and incorporate sexual assault and consent discussions into school health curriculums. DA Rocah also touched on the importance of education, especially the education of first responders, such as security staff on college campuses. She mentioned how important it is to have honest conversations about assault and for people to hear about real-life examples from survivors. These examples will demonstrate that sexual violence can happen to anyone and that we all must be aware of. Second DA Green added that the onus must not be on victims to avoid the assault, but rather on teaching men to respect women. Referencing the two men in Know My Name who intervened and stopped the assault, Mr. Green stated that “those fellows got the message [on the importance of consent] at some point and came to call this guy out… and interrupt the crime. The message can get out there through education.”

Next, Ms. Pomerantz posed a question about the limitations that exist in terms of helping victims.

Both DA Rocah and Second DA Green spoke about the outdated sexual violence laws on the books. DA Rocah talked about her efforts to close the voluntary toxication loophole, which states that if a person is so intoxicated that they cannot remember, or were unable to say that they did not consent, then a prosecutor cannot prove lack of consent. There is currently legislation being pushed that would change this structure to require active and affirmative consent. Additionally, DA Rocah mentioned that bad actors are often a limitation to this work. She disclosed that peoples’ stories of sexual assault crimes, “all too often have someone in the process who did not serve them well… they are out there in the world of law enforcement whether it's intentional or not… these inherent biases come into play way too much."

Adding to the discussion of archaic laws, Mr. Green stated that although people should only make disclosures of sexual assault when they feel ready to come forward, New York “has a law that is hundreds of years old that says if a survivor doesn’t make a report immediately, it is not admissible in court. It is counter to everything we know… the court system is not set up to be an empathetic and warm environment that survivors of crime need.”

Speaking to the barriers that exist in the system, Ms. FitzSimmons shared that after reporting her assault, the police questioned what she was wearing, how tight her outfit was, how much she fought back against the aggressor, and if she screamed. They told her that she should not proceed with her case because she would not win. She also said that these officers would not help her understand the language on the forms she was asked to fill out, and they were not mindful of the fragile state of mind she was in when she was reporting the assault.

Adding to her story, Mr. Green emphasized that this type of education is critical and that he specifically trains officers on how to approach victims. He shared a powerful example of a case he worked on where the officer was so skeptical of a victim’s story of being raped by her boyfriend that the victim dropped her case. Luckily, the woman went on her own to the hospital to ask for an evidence collection kit, and after being approached by a more compassionate officer, she eventually agreed to proceed. When she showed that officer a photo of her rapist, the officer identified the man as someone who was wanted for an earlier unsolved sexual assault case and an unsolved first-degree murder case. Mr. Green’s story highlighted how critical the need is to listen to and believe victims when they come forward and the disastrous consequences that can result if we do not.

Next, Ms. Pomerantz asked about consent. She referenced that in Know My Name, there was a big deal made about the fact that Chanel Miller never said no, even though she was intoxicated and unable to do so. Addressing the panel, she asked how we can better understand and handle these situations when they are complicated by the role of alcohol, and how we can do a better job of talking about consent.

Taking the legislative angle, Mr. Green stated that New York currently does not have a statute to address these situations unless a person is so intoxicated that they are unconscious, unable to communicate, or someone else has drugged them. The state does not have a law that fits what to do in an in-between state. He mentioned that the DA’s office is working to push through a Voluntary Intoxication bill that would address this grey area. He also recommended viewing the Consent Tea video which he says is “a good little lesson that is a non-confrontational and easy to digest way to talk about what consent is all about.”

DA Rocah added that their job is to help victims become survivors, and that working in law enforcement often means that she is involved at a very traumatic point in the immediate aftermath of an incident. She said it’s important to recognize “that it isn’t all going to happen at once… [sexual assault] is a unique area…. If someone doesn’t want to talk about it, they shouldn’t have to. If they don’t tell a coherent story in the beginning, that understandable… [we need to] start with we believe you, and with the understanding that these are crimes of trauma.” Mr. Green added that their office takes a victim-centered approach, and they try to empower victims by giving them a voice and building a rapport. In the Westchester office, a survivor works with the same attorney from their first day until years after the case is over. This consistency is one way the office tries to make that person comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Mr. Green also emphasized the importance of educating survivors about the process and helping them understand what to expect. Referencing Chanel Miller’s positive relationship with her attorney in Know My Name, he stated the importance of feeling empowered through the process. He mentioned that the Westchester office has a trauma therapist on staff who sits with every sexual assault survivor to help them with their healing process.

To close the discussion, Ms. FitzSimmons stated that it is critical for friends, family members, and members of the legal system to validate survivors and to understand that victims are in their “trauma mind.” She said that survivors’ minds are “not functioning in the same capacity that it normally would be… take that extra time to explain to them what is coming up next, and what this experience might look like for you.” From her own experience, she spoke to the importance of giving a person space to identify as a victim or a survivor and helping them on that journey. She stated that people should not be denied the experience of being a victim, that that it is often a very long process for a person to truly identify as a survivor.

You can learn more about the Scarsdale Safe Coalition here and check the site to find out about upcoming events and discussions.