Reported sexual assault cases in Utah County have sharply increased in the last two years, increasing by over 75% compared to the previous four years, according to data from the Utah Department of Public Safety.
Data from 2017-2020 show that on average, 374 people reported sexual assault to the police yearly, while that number rose to 700 cases in 2021 and is tracking toward an even higher number in 2022.
This “spike” in cases is the trend nationwide, according to BYU nursing professor and forensic nurse Julie Valentine.
Valentine participated in a recently published study that connects sexual assault with the use of dating apps and believes it could be contributing to the spike in cases.
“I think the increase in dating app use in many ways it has developed this open safari for violent predators to search for vulnerable victims,” she said.
She said they also found that dating app rapes that ocurred on the first time they met were more violent.
“I’ve been tracking data in Utah from 2010 through now and we’ve seen an increase in violence in the sexual assault cases, which is really concerning,” Valentine said.
While this provides a potential explanation for the spike, Valentine also cited the increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential contributor and the more positive explanation that people may be reporting more often than before.
“You always have to question when there’s a spike, are more sexual assault cases occurring or are more people reporting? And the hope is that more are reporting,” Valentine said.
Higher levels of reporting is one possible cause for the spike in cases locally or nationwide. However, that does not appear to be the case for BYU students.
According to the BYU Campus Climate Survey published in March 2022, 73% of victims of unwanted sexual contact did not report to any professional sources for help. Only 1.7% of victims reported the incident to the police. This is compared to the same survey released in 2017 where 63% of victims responded that they did not report the incident to authorities.
Surveyed individuals stated that they did not think the incident was serious enough or did not want any action to be taken as the top two reasons for choosing not to report the incident.
Makenna Lines Tew, a BYU student who agreed to the use of her name for this story, was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend who she met on the dating app Mutual while living in Florida. She said her “biggest motivator” behind not reporting was fear of retaliation.
“When you do go through trauma, like obviously there is fear and there’s just a fear of like okay, he’s gonna retaliate and come find me and then I’ll really be screwed,” Tew said.
A.C., a senior at BYU who requested to remain anonymous, was sexually assaulted by a friend after being stuck at his house with no way to go home. She chose not to report the incident because the perpetrator was a close family friend. In another incident, involving a man she met on a dating app for the first time that night, she was coerced into having sexual intercourse where he gave her two STDs. She did not want to report it for fear of personal repercussions.
BYU Title IX Coordinator Tiffany Turley said that confusion with the connection between the Title IX Office and the Honor Code Office or law enforcement might deter students from reporting.
“I think there’s fear that if something gets reported we’re going to run away with the process and they’re not going to have control anymore, and that is just not the case,” she said.
Turley said that the Title IX office asks victims what help looks like for them personally. Options for help range from helping them get a midterm exam extension to a police investigation depending on what the student would like to do, according to Turley.
While many students choose not to report for a variety of reasons, some students turn to authorities to help navigate the situation.
Rachel Dunford, a BYU student who gave her permission for her name to be used in this story, was sexually assaulted on a group blind date two years ago.
“He was an RM,” she said, “and his screen saver was Jesus.”
Dunford was set-up on a date with her friends to watch a movie on a projector outside. She was then assaulted after everyone, including herself, had fallen asleep.
“I just remember I felt disgusting and I felt violated and I felt so unworthy and that I put this upon myself,” she said. “I remember getting in the shower and crying and just like scrubbing my skin so hard because I just could not shake that disgusting feeling off.”
In the middle of the night, Dunford called lead sexual assault survivor advocate Lisa Leavitt on her hotline to receive guidance.
Dunford said she “can’t speak highly enough” about her experience with Leavitt.
“She literally did anything I needed. She was the reason I got through it. Like I could not have done anything without Lisa. She was the one that told me how to report it, told me if I should report it, talked me through the psychology of it,” she said.
Dunford said she did report it to the Orem Police Department but found that experience unhelpful. She said the perpetrator flipped the situation on her, turning it into a ‘he said she said’ situation.
One detective referred to her story as “speaking her truth” which Dunford said was “totally unvalidating.” She said the BYU Police detective was more validating but could not do anything since the perpetrator was not a BYU student.
Dunford said that reporting is difficult to do because of the potential repercussions. “I was really worried it was gonna make him like find me.” She said the hardest aspect of reporting for her was feeling responsible for the situation, regardless of knowing that it was impossible since she was asleep.
“You’re blaming yourself and so you don’t think it’s justified,” she said.
Regardless of Dunford’s disappointing experience with the police, she expressed her desire for others to know the resources and the control that victims have in every step of the reporting process.
“You can report and then that’s it. That can be the final step,” Dunford said.
Valentine provided a few safety suggestions while dating, particularly when using dating apps.
“The first and most important thing is if someone is sexually assaulted, it is never their fault, no matter what decisions they made,” she said.
Valentine then suggested spending time with the person in public places, telling someone you trust where you are going and when the date should end, taking your own transportation, keeping your phone charged and having your friends meet them or “vet” them before being alone with them.
“The last thing is, if somebody experienced sexual assault to please report, and it doesn’t need to necessarily be police, but seek out healthcare. We, our forensic nursing team, sees people up to a week. We provide medications, we provide resources, so we never want anyone to feel alone,” Valentine said.