Washington women report more sexual assaults, rapes

By Peggy Andersen

Associated Press

SEATTLE — More than a third of Washington state women have been victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives — and for 80 percent of them, the experience occurred before age 18, according to the first statewide survey on the subject.

The rate of forcible rape reported by the 1,325 women surveyed — 23 percent — is higher than that found in recent similar national studies. Last year’s National Violence Against Women Survey found a 15 percent overall rate and the 1992 National Women’s Study turned up a 13 percent rate.

Previous studies have indicated higher rape rates for West Coast women, said Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, which was chosen by the state Office of Crime Victims Advocacy to conduct the survey.

It is possible that rates actually are higher on the West Coast, she said. But it could also be that some of the victims who moved after their experience — as 19 percent of one-time and about a third of multiple-incident victims said they did — migrated West.

Very few — just 0.6 percent — reported a forcible rape in the past year.

Sexual assault covers a range of behaviors besides forcible rape, including non-consensual sex blamed on drugs or threat, indecent liberties, attempted rape, forced sexual contact or child sexual abuse.

The survey found 38 percent of state women reported sexual assault of some type.

Just 9 percent of those abused said the assault involved alcohol or drugs, but 43 percent of those whose assault did involve drugs were under 18, the study found.

Many — 39 percent — had never told anyone of their experience, though the rates for telling were higher for younger women. About 68 percent of women under 40 told someone, but only half of women over 50 had.

And just 15 percent reported a sexual assault to police, though 61 percent of those who did found police at least somewhat helpful and 21 percent found officers completely helpful.

Asked why they did not report assaults, some cited such obstacles as extreme youth (23 percent), fear of their attacker (6 percent), uncertainty about whether a crime had been committed (9 percent), concern they would not be believed (4 percent) and shame (11 percent). Many did not respond to that question.

Twenty-five percent of younger women called police, which Berliner attributes to an improved climate for sexual assault victims, but "it’s still not even close to a majority."

The reasons are often related to the assault circumstances and concerns about how others will react, she said.

"In my own clinical experience … I’ve had victims say, ‘I’m not worried about people blaming me — I know it wasn’t my fault. But just thinking about it and remembering is shameful and I don’t want people to think of me that way,’ " she said.

"Women who tell are more likely to get counseling and tell the police. If we think these are important actions for women and children to take, and I do — telling someone is the first place to start," Berliner said.

"We have to create a climate that unequivocally communicates that the person who does" the assaulting "is fully, morally and legally responsible no matter what the circumstances are," she said.

That will make it more possible to "alert young women to dangerous circumstances" — notably going with someone they don’t know very well to a situation where alcohol and other drugs are available. "That’s a common circumstance for young people — college students, teens who are going out to party."

Most of those surveyed — 60 percent of non-victims, 69 percent of victims — were aware that their communities offered services for sexual assault victims, and 67 percent across the board were aware of medical services.

"We’re very fortunate in this state … both local and state governments have had support services for sexual assault victims for many years," Berliner said.

The study participants ranged in age from 18 to 96, with an average age of 46. They were approximately 88 percent white, 2 percent black, 3 percent Asian, 2 percent American Indian and 6 percent "other."

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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