The Utah Women and Leadership Project published a BYU research snapshot regarding sexual assault among Utah women on Aug. 3, listing Utah as above the national average for rapes per capita.
The snapshot is a summary of several studies conducted by BYU College of Nursing dean Julie Valentine and BYU associate professor Leslie Miles. It examines levels of rape, reporting of sexual assault incidents and legal action taken on behalf victims.
Researchers also analyzed statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database which show Utah exhibits a rate of 55.5 sexual assault cases per 100,000 people, where the national average is only at a rate of 42.6 sexual assault incidents per 100,000 people. It also referenced Utah’s rank as ninth in the U.S. for number of rapes per capita in 2020.
“We began this research project in 2011, so we’ve been working on it for eleven years,” Valentine said. “We have one of the largest databases in the world on sexual assault cases.”
Researchers collected information from sexual assault medical forensic examination (SAMFE) forms from eight Utah counties: Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, Morgan, Davis, Box Elder, Washington and Iron.
“One of the surprising numbers on the descriptive data was the high amount of victims with self-disclosed mental illness,” Valentine said. “It’s really a significant vulnerability for sexual assault.”
Valentine said she does trainings with police and law enforcement to explain this vulnerability. “We’ve recently published three articles on this and are trying to disseminate this information to mental health practitioners and prevention programs,” Valentine said.
Valentine has also conducted research regarding how law enforcement reacts to sexual assault reports.
When women are sexually assaulted, they have the option to request a sexual assault medical forensic exam, which can be used to help them receive important medical care and prosecute their assailants. Among those who requested exams, Valentine said Black women and Native American women had high rates of sexual assault.
Valentine also said that 10 years ago, they were shocked to find only 20% of collected rape kits in Salt Lake County were submitted to crime labs for analysis.
“I worked very closely with Rep. Angela Romero and wrote HB200, which mandates a submission and testing of all sexual assault kits,” Valentine said. “Law enforcement has been incredibly responsible at training and we’ve gone from 30% to 98% of kits submitted in Utah.”
Although rape kit submission rates have improved, Valentine said they’re still working to boost prosecution.
“We did this study in 2013 in Salt Lake County and found that of those submitted rape kits who said they wanted to prosecute, only 6% were actually prosecuted,” Valentine said.
Valentine said although there are various reasons for this, they have collected data from law enforcement stating that victims become uncooperative in the case.
“So maybe a victim they interviewed then decided, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,'” Valentine said. “That’s why we need to increase advocacy resources for victims so they have more support.”
Valentine said there may be several reasons Utah ranks so high in rapes per capita. “In conservative cultures, which I would put Utah in that category, victims are more hesitant to report because they feel they will not be believed,” Valentine said. “We need to do more education for society at large, because they are also our jury.”
When it comes to discrepancy between recorded sexual assaults and those which are reported, Valentine said Utah has only a 12% reporting rate, one of the lowest in the country.
“That makes our high rates of rape even more concerning,” Valentine said. “There are some very good anonymous phone surveys with high validity and reliability that gather anonymous data on sexual assaults in Utah.”
Valentine said the best thing people can do is believe victims when they come forward about sexual assault.
“What happens in many rape and sexual assault cases is people question the victim and the victim feels like they’re on trial,” Valentine said. “We need to be very clear that they are not to blame for being a victim of rape.”
Utah State University professor Susan Madsen the Utah Women and Leadership Project, which focuses on empowering Utah women and preventing sexual and domestic violence. “Our mission is to strengthen the impact of Utah girls,” Madsen said.
“I just know that this is the work that needs to happen,” Madsen said. “I am pushing a bit stronger here and there and doing my best to change things, especially with sexual assault.”
Madsen said the research is an important part of reducing sexual assault. “It’s time to move,” Madsen said. “It’s just wrong on every level and being silent and not taking this on as one of our most serious problems in the state is not acceptable anymore.”
Madsen said one of the other issues Utah women face is sexist commentary. “We did a huge study, one of my favorites of all time, on sexist comments,” Madsen said. “They’re interesting and shocking. I’m getting a little more ornery about those issues.”
Executive Director of Utah’s Rape Recovery Center Sonya Martinez-Ortiz said the community can help lower sexual assault in Utah by working to break the stigma surrounding rape and victims. “Believe survivors when they come forward,” Martinez-Ortiz said.
The Rape Recovery Center is the only stand-alone recovery center in Utah that provides direct services to victims. “We provide advocacy, therapy and a 24-hour mobile response team to victims,” Martinez-Ortiz said. “We encourage them to go to the ER immediately and we meet them at the hospital directly with a dispatched sexual assault nurse.”
As for prevention, Martinez-Ortiz said they have a community engagement team the specializes in community outreach and education surrounding sexual assault. “It’s important to talk about more than just sexual assault,” Martinez-Ortiz said. “We need to get comfortable talking about boundaries in relationships, respect and body-autonomy and that can be done in an age-appropriate way with everyone.”