Every 107 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S., and in Texas, two in five women have survived a rape or sexual assault. Last year nearly 900 sexual assaults were reported to the Austin Police Department and Travis County Sheriff’s Office alone, however, both advocates and law enforcement estimate that the high number only represents 10-15% of all rapes that occurred in and around Austin during 2014, suggesting that the number of assaults taking place could be closer to between 6,000 and 9,000.
If those numbers are startling, they should be. Though awareness about sexual assault seems to be spreading, numbers aren’t decreasing – or even stagnating. According to SafePlace, the Austin nonprofit that assists those affected by sexual assault and domestic violence, every day an average of two people report being raped here in Austin, a number that closely matches national statistics.
“The sexual assault occurrence rate in Austin is not unusually high,” says Assistant Travis County District Attorney Dana Nelson. “What surprises people is that the numbers in general are really high.” Nelson, who sat on the SafePlace board for just over six years (her term ended in February), works as the sex crimes liaison for the D.A.’s office. Nelson is responsible for staffing every sexual assault case involving an adult victim. She’s also one of six people to present all cases assigned to the 3rd and 4th district courts.
The horrifically high numbers at home and across the nation demand that we look at the bigger picture in order to understand the smaller one. Rape culture – or a “culture that glorifies rape as sexy,” as defined by SafePlace Director of Community Advocacy Emily LeBlanc – is intricately tied to mainstream American culture. Depictions of aggressive, nonconsensual sex are all around us (see Game of Thronesfor a variety of particularly graphic examples). “It normalizes violence in sex, and it desensitizes everyone,” clarifies LeBlanc.
But rape isn’t sexy. It’s a violent, brutally invasive crime that can rob victims of their sense of self and worth. It’s often physically – as well as mentally – damaging, causing the penetrated body parts to rip, tear, and bleed. It can involve broken jaws, black eyes, concussions, unwanted pregnancies, and STDs. For survivors, there’s nothing sexy about it.
Rape Culture ATX
Like many cities, Austin can be a breeding ground for sexual assault. With a thriving entertainment district, multiple college campuses, a lively young community, and the never-ending procession of festivals and special events, partying is prioritized.
“We encourage people to come party, but we leave them vulnerable in so many ways,” summarizes Lieutenant Gena Curtis with Austin Police Department’s Violent Crimes Unit. “We even set up a system to protect our young people with a bus shuttling them to and from campus and Downtown, but on that bus they’re so vulnerable. It makes you wonder, how can you have it all? At what point is it too much?”
With school back in session and fall music festivals fast approaching, Curtis’ question couldn’t be more aptly timed. Festivals – and similar events – combine mass consumption of alcohol with thousands of people, many of whom are from out of town. “It brings in more people – i.e., more rapists and more victims – crams them into small, usually hot spaces, and then plies them with alcohol,” says LeBlanc. “It’s ingredients for the perfect storm.”
Alcohol-facilitated assaults are by far the most commonly reported attacks at festivals. “Many times it’s predators who go to these festivals looking for the vulnerable target – someone who’s intoxicated, from out of town, alone, etc.,” explains APD Sex Crimes Sergeant Christine Chomout. And of course, the greater concentration of people can lead to a greater concentration of victims. According to Nelson, alcohol – and drugs, but to a much lesser degree – play a large role in the attacks that get reported to law enforcement. In fact, alcohol is the most frequently used – and detected – date rape drug on the market.
However, because alcohol is legal and extremely popular, evidence of its use rarely helps prosecute a predator. Yet that same evidence is a key component in victim-blaming. More often than not, rape culture points its finger at the victim: claiming they drank too much, dressed too slutty, that they did drugs, that they were too young to be out, that sex workers can’t by definition be raped, that men by definition can’t be raped, that they didn’t say no, that they went upstairs when they should have known better, that they got in the car when they should have known better.
“You should be able to be passed out and not get raped,” says Nelson, a sentiment echoed by each and every advocate the Chronicle interviewed, including Dolores Laparte-Litton, one of APD’s two Sex Crime Victim Services counselors. “If I’m passed out in this room, it does not give anyone the right to rape me,” states Laparte-Litton.
Neither SafePlace nor APD had any hard numbers on hand to showing that sexual assault increases at local festivals, and a spokesperson for Austin City Limits Music Festival tells the Chronicle, “There have been no reported sexual assaults to APD during the event, and C3 is not aware of any reports of this nature in ACL’s history.” However, LeBlanc confirms that, for whatever reason, the past two Octobers have seen a spike in advocacy requests. “The advocates who have been doing this for years anecdotally brace for the influx, which tells me there’s something to it,” LeBlanc says.
ACL says the festival is focused on prevention: “ACL employs roving patrols of officers throughout the park designed to intercede in incidents before they escalate … There are more officers employed by ACL inside the park than patrol Sixth Street on a weekend night. There are multiple systems in place to make ACL a safe environment for everyone, including medical areas where intoxicated individuals can be placed and monitored until they can get assistance or be sent home with a sober friend.”
Of course, the issue extends far beyond the reach of any festival. There’s also the near-nightly procession made by varying states of intoxicated people up and down Sixth Street. According to APD’s Curtis, Chomout, and Laparte-Litton, it’s all too frequent that the assaults that begin Downtown leave the survivors in the dark. “They wake up somewhere and don’t remember what happened,” explains Chomout. “Those cases are really hard because oftentimes the person just wants to leave. They don’t get an address and don’t remember what the [perpetrator] looks like.”
“We need to be asking: Why are perpetrators scooping people off the street at 2:30 in the morning?” says Nelson. “They’re not intoxicated most of the time, and often they went to Sixth Street at 2am on purpose when they know bars are closing.”