The fear of rape is real and very frightening. The San Clemente rapist, who attacked his fifth victim Tuesday, has escalated this anxiety. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls to our rape-crisis hot line.
No one wants to imagine such a violation happening to them. Yet, we know that more than 400 rapes were reported in Orange County in 1989, more than one a day. And the FBI states that only about one out of 10 rapes is reported. So, the potential of being sexually assaulted does exist. It is serious.
No one is really immune. Victims of rape are from all backgrounds and areas. Last year, our rape-crisis center handled cases of children younger than 5 and elderly women more than 80. How then do we face each day without living in fear? Every day we spend frightened is a day we allow a sadistic individual to control the quality of our lives.
First, follow the basic precautions you would use to guard against any violent crime. Stay away from known dangerous locales if possible, travel with a friend if you can, park in brightly lighted locations, have keys in hand when approaching your auto and be sure you lock your doors and windows.
Should you arm yourself with weapons or tear gas? We advise against weapons. Simply put, it's easy for a criminal to turn the weapon against the victim herself. Also, you cannot carry your weapon with you every moment of the day, and sometimes a weapon can give a false sense of security. The best weapon is to keep a cool head. Use your intuition; don't ignore your danger instinct. Keep your wits about you if you are attacked. Sounds impossible, but rape counselors know that victims can and do act rationally and powerfully in the overwhelming majority of cases.
If attacked, use your voice as the first weapon of choice. Release your fear by screaming long and loud. Verbal self-defense may also include trying to speak to the assailant in a clear, lucid, not-pleading manner. Rape is a crime intended to dehumanize the victim, so clarity of thought and speech often confuses a rapist.
You should also protect yourself by looking around your environment and visualizing how you would move if attacked. Picture yourself fleeing from an assailant and plan an "escape route." Being fully aware of your physical surroundings can often help you to get away. Begin to think of how you would help another person if you observe an attack. Never assume that cries for help are merely domestic spats, and never ignore altercations. Call the police immediately.
Most victims try to physically resist their attacker, and many are successful to some degree. Generally, women do not see themselves as powerless, and they will act aggressively in their own defense. Sexual-assault survivors often report their efforts to defend themselves, including those with physical disabilities. Perpetrators are usually amazed at the resistance they face. That grab for the groin or poke in the eye just might give you enough time to get away. One needn't be a black belt to put up an effective struggle. Techniques taught in women's self-defense course are very effective. There are good women's courses available, including courses for the physically challenged.
But never feel that you must try to resist, that if you don't, you have "given in." The reality is that all you must do is survive. Each incidence of sexual assault is different. There is never a right or wrong way to get through an attack. Our society has come very far from the times when the victim was blamed for her own assault. Today we realize that survivors need support, not further victimization.
It's tragic that we think of rape only at times when a sadistic serial perpetrator is in the news. Only a small minority of victims are attacked by a serial rapist. The vast majority (more than 60% of victims) are attacked by someone they know and in their own homes. In the United States, more than a million women a year are victims. Rape is a crime of power and violence, not of uncontrollable sex drive. Research shows that the majority of rapists have available sex partners. Sexual attractiveness is not the reason for a rapist selecting a victim. Heterosexual men are calling rape-crisis centers in increasing numbers--victims of sexual aggression and violence.
For victims of any violent crime, healing takes time and compassion. Many emerge strong, in control of their lives, reforged in this crucible. For others, the memories are strong and painful. When rapists receive media coverage, calls to our hot line spike upward as past victims reach out for comfort. If you are experiencing this anguish, congratulate yourself that you have survived and reach out to your support network for help.
We can all work to alleviate violent crime by education and compassion. Most importantly, if you know of someone who has been victimized, suggest that they call a rape-crisis center hot line, join a support group or seek therapy. Your compassion can help facilitate their healing process. Together, we can make a difference.