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While intoxicated and unconscious at a party, 15-year-old Audrie Pott was sexually assaulted by three of her peers. The three assailants drew on her partly exposed body, took photos of her, and then proceeded to share the photos with others online. After using social media to piece together events she had no memory of, Audrie died by suicide.
During the court proceedings closed to the public, Audrie’s adolescent assailants were sentenced to 30 to 45 days in juvenile hall. Audrie’s parents expressed disappointment that not only were the sentences too short, but could also be served on weekends. Beyond brief incarceration, her assailants received no other punishment – or behavioral treatment for their sexual offences. Following the court decision, many questioned the briefness of the sentences and the lack of behavioral treatment to prevent continued sexually assaultive behavior. Audrie’s case also shed light on the lack of criminal prohibitions against taking and sharing degrading photos against victims’ consent, which greatly amplified Audrie’s trauma.
Tragically, Audrie’s story is not an isolated case. In fact, in 2011, 243,800 individuals in America were victims of sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault. Moreover, 44% of sexual violence victims are under the age of 18. In part because 60% of sexual assaults are never reported to the police, an estimated 97% of perpetrators never spend a day in jail. Additionally, recent research suggests that 1 in 10 young people aged 14 to 21 have themselves perpetrated sexual violence, including coercive and forced sexual activity. While not as well enumerated, the diffusion of social media and camera phones has made it easier to create and share sexual photos that may not have been taken with the consent of the person in the photo. This can amplify, as well as make public, the victimization.
In light of Audrie’s experience, Jim Beall, D-San Jose, has drafted a bill to address sexual violence against people who are developmentally disabled or unconscious during the assault. “Audrie’s Law” SB838, would require juveniles who commit specified sexual assault crimes to receive behavioral treatment. Research has suggested that sexual offender treatment can affect significant reductions in sexual behavior problems, as well as delinquency and substance use. Judges will have significant flexibility in tailoring the treatment to the offender, based on the victim’s vulnerability and seriousness of the crime. In this way, the bill has the potential to prevent sex offenders from becoming repeat offenders. Audrie’s Law also calls for public proceedings for cases against juveniles who commit specific sexual assault crimes against unconscious individuals as adults. Harsher sentences could also be sought if the perpetrators took pictures of the assault and used them to intimidate the victim.
While ensuring that more sexual violence offenders get treatment is important, the justice system is not the single bullet that will eradicate sexual violence. The United States incarcerates more people than any other high-income nation, with 707 people incarcerated per 100,000 people. Including their obvious risk for negative outcomes, youth in jail also rarely have access to services that address their mental health, behavioral health, and developmental needs. As a consequence, the juvenile justice system can set young people on a life course of criminal behavior.
We need to focus on preventing sexual violence before it happens. Programs that help young people speak up when they learn about sexual assault or perpetration involving someone they know seem to increase the number of perpetrators who face consequences. These and other violence prevention programs that address anger management and appropriate behavioral boundaries need to be adequately funded. We also need to take responsibility for talking to our kids about sex – what is consensual and what is not, and how to communicate with our sexual partners about difficult topics. Putting the onus on the victim to speak up shifts the responsibility onto them, but when we take on the responsibility as a community, we can make a difference in preventing youth from becoming either victim or perpetrator.
Source: Psychology Today
Author: Michele Ybarra, MPH, Ph.D., President and Research Director of a non-profit research organization called the Center for Innovative Public Health Research