Sexual Assault Survivors Take on the System

Sup. Hillary Ronen spearheads a new office to counter systemic flaws encountered by victims navigating city agencies after an assault.

“What would you do if you were raped? I didn’t know, I had to Google it,” Jane Doe said during a press conference at City Hall. “The police came and took me in an ambulance to the hospital. Physically ill, in shock and alone, I waited for hours in a dingy room with no phone service … I had the worst headache of my life, and I waited for hours behind other rape victims to be seen by the one nurse on the sexual-assault response team.”

Doe is just one of more than a dozen victims of sexual violence who’ve spoken up at City Hall in the past few weeks. They come from all backgrounds; one works in civil rights, another is a teacher. On Tuesday, sex workers, monolingual Spanish speakers, queer women, and women of color took the mic at a press conference to share their stories as part of a collective call for reform and accountability of city government agencies that failed to adequately handle their cases.

It’s something that Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose office is spearheading the movement, calls a deep, systemic problem, one that stretches all the way from the Police Department to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital to the District Attorney’s office.

“I have heard enough stories that it is clear to me these are not just a few isolated incidents,” Ronen said at a sex assault hearing held in the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee in April. “There is a pattern of negligence and mistreatment that I consider abusive toward rape victims. These are our city employees who are blaming victims for their own assaults, disregarding the severity of these rapes and denying survivors their right to an objective and thorough investigation.”

On Tuesday, Ronen introduced legislation at the Board of Supervisors meeting that, if passed, would create an Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP). The office, which is estimated to cost $400,000 annually to get off the ground, would have three staff members who would receive complaints, offer support for victims as they navigate the system, provide oversight of government agencies that interact with victims, and create reports on the city’s efficacy (or lack thereof) in solving these cases.

“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation in San Francisco in 2018,” Ronen said. “I am angry, I am upset, and I am appalled.”

She has good reason to be. The stories that have been brought to her office over the past few months sound more like they originate from The Handmaid’s Tale than one of the country’s most liberal cities.

Rachel Sutton experienced a slew of institutional mishaps after she was raped in February 2013. The hospital told her she could pee before her exam, which reduced the amount of evidence. Despite fearing that drugs were used in her assault, she didn’t receive a blood test for three hours. The District Attorney assigned to her case threw it out without even interviewing her. Sutton hired attorneys and filed a civil suit, but police took so long to respond that when the trial date came around it had to be pushed out several months.

“What I experienced was four-and-a-half years of negligence and incompetence numerous times in every single agency that I encountered in the process,” Sutton told a crowd at City Hall, stating that she’s experienced ongoing trauma from being “personally dehumanized, invalidated, and straight-up bullied by the people you’re told that you can trust in your most helpless moments.”

Sutton spoke carefully and eloquently, but not all victims who’ve come out have the advantage of being a native English speaker. A woman named Maria spoke to a crowd with Ronen’s legislative aide Carolina Morales, who’s spent years working with domestic violence victims, translating.

“When I moved to this city, I felt very vulnerable,” she said. ”I was in a new country, I didn’t know any English. I was working at a restaurant, and in my free time I would go to school to learn English.”

Shortly after arriving, Maria began to experience violent sexual and emotional assaults from a man she lived with. “He would tell me that if I ever told anybody about the sexual advances that he would do towards me, he would make me look guilty,” she said. “He would tell everybody that I was at fault.”

It took years for Maria to finally speak of the incident, but when she did, she wasn’t offered help.

“When I became pregnant, I talked with the hospital staff at S.F. General, and told them that I had been sexually abused. They told me ‘all women go through that, and they have to continue on with their lives,’ ” she said.

With the help of San Francisco Women Against Rape, Maria did finally file a police report documenting her assault, but by then too much time had passed to press charges. Nevertheless, she’s committed to using her experience to help others.

“I am speaking up because I don’t want any other woman to feel afraid to break their silence,” she said.

The #MeToo movement started with women coming out against Harvey Weinstein, trickled down to shared stories from nearly every woman on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and then rose back up again to focus squarely on celebrities. The emphasis thus far has been on calling out the men who perpetrated the attacks, and with just cause — it’s disgusting that known sex offenders still hold positions of power. But as Ronen’s hearing and press conference has proven, the #MeToo movement doesn’t just end with pointing a finger at an assailant, but with listening to, trusting, and advocating for victims every step of the way.

Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, emphasized that the city needs to improve on creating a comprehensive team that supports victims of sexual assault — a process which starts simply with believing victims when they speak up.

“What if we lived in a city where if someone called 911, we believed them?” she asked. “If somebody’s home is broken into, we don’t ask them over and over again ‘Are you sure your house was broken into?’

“Let’s become part of a team, where a 911 dispatcher sends an officer that speaks the language, that understands the cultural issues, who works with the survivor from the first minute,” Upton added. “The nurses at SFGH also become part of the team, so by the time the survivor gets far enough along to make a decision about her case, her healing has begun and she has a team around her. She hasn’t had to stop several times a day and convince somebody that she’s a victim.”

It’s a good goal, and one that probably won’t be reached without a significant change in the many systems rape victims have to navigate. But despite the raw, painful stories that survivors shared in City Hall over the past few weeks, there’s an unbelievable amount of optimism.

“I hope that victims will no longer have to arrive at trial exhausted, damaged, and ready to surrender,” Sutton said. “I hope that we have finally found a way to transform a dehumanizing and depleting process into what it’s supposed to be. More victims ready and willing to prosecute means more predators out of our streets and our workplaces. It sends the message to rapists that they are the ones in danger now, not us.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. | @TheBestNuala

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