You probably know someone who’s been raped. In fact, you probably know several people who’ve been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives; and if you’re a woman, there’s a one in four chance one of those people is you.
Rape isn’t a popular topic of discussion. It’s painful and terrifying and uncomfortable—none of which are characteristics of great conversation. But according to KC Quirk, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico, silence helps perpetuate what she calls “some of the worst parts of humanity.”
New Mexico has the second-highest rate of forcible rape in the nation, according to 2008 statistics issued by the FBI. (The report defines “forcible rape” as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly against her will.”) Though crime rates in Albuquerque are falling, rape cases are increasing. And for every reported rape, there’s a far greater number that go unreported. Quirk says nationally, only one in 20 women and one in 100 men will report they’ve been raped, while one in four women and one in 20 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
The Albuquerque Police Department is trying to address the problem, but it’s also coping with resources that are spread thin. APD’s Sex Crimes Unit is devoted to investigating adult sexual offense cases, defined as involving people age 13 and older. Commander Michael Geier, who works in the violent crime section of the Criminal Investigations Division, says the unit has eight detectives but “could easily use three to five more.” Because of the sheer number of cases that come to the unit, they “tend to pile up on people’s desks,” he says. “They’re overworked.”
Still, Geier says great things about the city-run Albuquerque Family Advocacy Center, which serves victims of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault, as well as their families. The two-year-old institution is the brainchild of APD Chief Ray Schultz. “Sexual assault is the kind of crime that leads to low-level reporting because of embarrassment or other reasons,” Geier says. “One of the goals from the outset has been to address the problem by increasing people’s comfort levels.”
T.J. Wilham, Albuquerque’s public safety communications director and a former crime reporter, says Mayor Richard Berry’s public safety platform includes combating sexual assault. Wilham says one possible reason rape numbers in Albuquerque are on the rise is because the Family Advocacy Center has encouraged more people to report the crime.
Wilham also says Berry wants to rework a law to impose mandatory life sentences on those convicted of sexual assault three times. In New Mexico, a life sentence is 30 years.
“If I can say, Well, you know, rape is happening to girls who wear really short skirts, then I’m gonna be OK because I’m not that girl that wears short skirts.”
Amy Whitfield, community education and outreach manager
The Rape Crisis Center is also doing its best to combat grisly statistics. Its primary mission is to aid survivors of sexual assault. Advocates guide people through the medical and legal processes they may want to pursue after an attack. The center also offers counseling and a 24-hour hotline, all free and available in Spanish and English.
A new location may help it better provide those services. Using about $1.2 million in capital outlay funding, the center moved in November from its old space near the University area, where it had been for more than 20 years, to 9741 Candelaria NE.
The size of the center’s workspace doubled when it left a 5,500 square-foot building for an 11,000 square-foot one. At the old space, most rooms were shared. That led to complications in scheduling and cramped quarters for both staff and clients. At the new location, which consists of three separate structures on the same lot—for training, counseling and outreach—clients can now wait for services in private, and there’s plenty of room for training.
Even with the new facility and the advantages it offers, the center could always use more resources. It operates with a combination of federal, state and local government funding along with grants and donations. Quirk says it has 18 employees now, but tripling that number still wouldn’t meet demand. The center has a perpetual waiting list for counseling services that varies between two weeks and two months. “No one here likes that,” says Quirk. In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the center provided 263 people with professional counseling and 540 people with medical and legal information and emotional support. Its 24-hour hotline received 1,440 calls.
But the Rape Crisis Center recognizes that the best treatment for a problem is often prevention, and so education is a large component of its work. The center visits schools—elementary schools to universities—to talk about assault. Amy Whitfield is the organization’s community education and outreach manager. She gives presentations on appropriate versus inappropriate behavior, ways to protect yourself and others, the deconstruction of gender roles, and myths about sexual violence and how it occurs.
“Myths really serve a purpose in letting us kind of feel like we’re safe from it happening to us,” says Whitfield. “If I can say, Well, you know, rape is happening to girls who wear really short skirts, then I’m gonna be OK because I’m not that girl that wears short skirts.”
Whitfield says one of the most common myths about sexual assault is that rapists are strangers who jump at people in alleys or from behind bushes. In reality, 77 percent of attackers know their victims and 85 percent of sexual assaults happen in people’s homes, according to the center.
Contributing factors to sexual violence are everywhere, Whitfield says, but many of them stem from the media. She cites lowbrow comedies such as Observe and Report. In the movie, Seth Rogan’s character has sex with a woman who’s almost too drunk to walk, a cut-and-dried date-rape scenario.
“We create almost a social norm around what it means to be male,” adds Quirk. Hollywood reinforces “that it’s this guy having sex with this nonconsenting drunk woman, and he’s telling jokes or being comedic—whatever that means—throughout the whole thing.”
Portraying acts like date rape as “normal” helps perpetuate sex crimes, she says, and that leads victims to take the blame for being attacked. A central Rape Crisis Center message is that the victim is never to blame, that it’s never OK to rape someone or sexually assault them.
Whitfield says one of the most important things people can do to help stop sexual assault is speak up—personally and publicly. “This isn’t an individual issue. It is a public health issue,” she says. “It’s a social issue.”