What I Learned When I Worked For The Sexual Assault Response Hotline
Back when I graduated from college, I worked in a shelter for women and children who were victims of abuse. I answered the “SART” line for Placer County. The SART line is the Sexual Assault Response Team line — often the first place sexual assault is reported. We would work with the police and the nurse at a designated ER to collect evidence and advocate for victims. We coordinated the SART and had well trained women who would go to the ER at all hours to sit with a victim and hold their hand, explain the process, advocate for them, bring them food and new clothes, and keep them company.
Did you know that when an individual reports a sexual assault and the police proceed to collect evidence, it takes hours? Did you know that a victim has to strip down completely nude in front of a nurse and have photographs taken of their body? Their vagina (or penis) and anus? Their mouth? Their back and buttocks? Did you know there are swabs taken from various places on their body to collect DNA? By “various parts,” I mean from inside their vagina and inside their anus? The places another person just forcefully invaded.
They have to give hair samples from their head and pubic hairs. They have to retell their story in great detail. They have to sit in a hospital room while a stranger meticulously collects evidence from the very places they were just victimized. They are in pain and they are suffering. Yet, they have a small window of time when they can have the evidence collected.
Now, consider this: victims have to agree to this. They have to agree to be re-victimized in order to have any case against their perpetrator. Many, many times victims back out. They are fragile in those early hours after an attack, and many cannot go through the emotional toll it takes to fully collect evidence.
Can you imagine? Maybe you can, and you have been there. My deepest sympathies to you. The reporting of sexual assault immediately following sexual assault is brutal. It’s scary.
Now, think of those victims who cannot speak up. They are scared and maybe feel guilt over being attacked. Maybe they feel like it’s their fault. Maybe they’ve never had any sexual encounter and have no words to describe what happened. Maybe they are a child and have no one they can report to. Maybe they are too young to understand. Maybe they just aren’t ready. Some of those people speak up later and no one believes them (children are often times not believed).
Some of those victims are asked questions like, What were you wearing? Were you flirting? What message were you giving him? Why didn’t you just leave?
Many people never report their assault. Is it any wonder why? Some people do speak up only to those closest to them. Some call sexual assault hotlines or only they’ll their therapist.
Answering the SART line always terrified me. I never knew what to expect. I heard stories that would horrify you. Stories from the dark underbelly of society that 11 years later linger in the back of my mind and have kept me up many a night.
My experience with the SART line taught me many things. One was to always trust a victim. Always believe them. Stand beside them as their advocate. There are many others who will stand beside the perpetrator and those people will forever worry over the accused. They’ll think it’s not fair to tell her story without a full DNA kit to prove she was violated.
When you have that DNA kit, they won’t understand the sacrifice she went through to obtain the evidence. They’ll go to great lengths to question your morals and they’ll parade all the perpetrator’s admirers past the victim with stories of valor and gentleness. They’ll worry over a man’s feelings and reputation and call the victim a slut. They’ll never have the backbone it takes to call out abusers for what they are.
It is no longer our role as women to be abuser allies. It is our role to be victim advocates. This is where we belong.
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