Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s note: The Sun agreed not to publish the names of the women who attended this support group session at the Las Vegas Rape Crisis Center.
Conversation in this cozy break room doesn’t come easily. The women sitting around a table often start and stop, pausing to catch a stray tear or find the right words.
They are victims of rape — a one-syllable, four-letter word that haunts these women gathered on a brisk, mid-November evening at the Las Vegas Rape Crisis Center.
Their mission: listen and, when and if they’re ready, talk. There are no expectations, no pressure to share too much too fast. It’s all about comfort.
“I don’t consider myself a victim,” says a woman in her late 40s who has become an unofficial group leader. “I’m a survivor.”
Her proclamation set the tone for the remaining two hours, as she and the other women — bonded by violation of their bodies — mustered courage to share their experiences.
“The bottom line is the same,” said Shizue Hill, a facilitator for the support group. “That’s why they can help each other. They know what they’re going through.”
The woman who labeled herself a survivor first sought help at age 29. That was almost two decades after an older cousin raped her.
“I think I buried it like a lot of other people,” she said. Her feelings of anger manifested themselves in other ways, mostly self-directed through substance abuse and eating problems.
In the meantime, she married and started a family. The years slipped away, until her daughter, now in her late teens, disclosed sexual abuse by an older relative.
“As a mother, I’d take it 100 times myself before I watched my kid go through it,” the woman said. “It was 100 percent more painful than what I went through.”
The six women gathered in the Rape Crisis Center’s break room represent a broad age range and live in different parts of the Las Vegas Valley. The support group meets at 6 p.m. every Tuesday. Attendance ebbs and flows.
No one is turned away, including on this day an indirect victim — a mother shattered by the rape of her young son.
“We see numbers tend to drop in the summer because it is so hot and some people take the bus,” said Hannah Brook, executive director of the Las Vegas Rape Crisis Center. “Holidays drop off, too.”
In 2010, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States had been raped at some point in their lives. For men, the percentage was much smaller but not nonexistent: 1 in 71 men, more than a quarter of whom were raped by age 10.
The survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, defined rape as “completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration or alcohol/drug-facilitated completed penetration.”
It’s raw language to describe what authorities call a crime driven by a perpetrator’s desire to exert power over another person. That’s why rapes tend to increase Super Bowl weekend, for instance.
“Someone always loses the Super Bowl, and rape is a crime of control,” Brook said. In other words, the perpetrator couldn’t control the outcome of the game so instead took control of the victim.
The Rape Crisis Center, which provides a broad array of services to victims, saw its numbers inch up last year. The center’s advocates, staff members or volunteers trained to console victims responded to 588 calls from hospitals last year. In 2011, they made 421 hospital visits, Brook said.
Calls to the center’s hotline also increased roughly 2 percent last year, totaling 6,084, Brook said.
Brook is quick to point out that the center’s numbers don’t necessarily correlate with those reported by police — simply because some victims do not want to file a police report or press charges.
Metro Police received 1,162 reports of sexual assaults last year, down from 1,256 in 2011, according to department data.
“Because sexual assault is such an emotional crime, that’s where individuals have a very difficult time making that decision about whether or not they want to follow through with filing charges,” she said.
As for the increase in hotline calls, Brook speculated it could have been an outgrowth of media coverage about the subject. In June, there was widespread coverage when a jury found former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. He is now serving at least 30 years in prison.
Then came Congressman Todd Akin’s now-infamous political blunder in August while he was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri. During an interview, the Republican set off a national maelstrom when he questioned whether sexual assaults could lead to pregnancies. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Akin told an interviewer.
“Whenever that happens, we seem to see a little push in numbers,” Brook said, referring to increased public dialogue. “That tends to be people who maybe suppressed something.”
The next support group attendee to speak, a 43-year-old woman, cannot escape flashbacks to the day in 1994 when an acquaintance date-raped her.
“I was held down, and I was beat up,” she said. “I was taken by ambulance to the hospital.”
She cried every day for months afterward and saw a psychologist for a year. But it was the trial – which ended with her rapist being convicted and sentenced to prison – that really stole her spirit.
“The trial is horrible,” she said. “It broke me down.”
A plush teddy bear assumes the role of unbiased friend in a small hospital room, where nurses perform sexual-assault examinations on victims. Advocates from the Rape Crisis Center bring along the donated stuffed bears, knowing many of the victims are scared and hesitant to discuss their situation, even with family members.
“It’s soft,” Brook said of the bear. “You’re in a cold, sterile environment when you’re in a hospital. This is one little thing they can hang onto and take home.”
Sexual assault nurse examiners — SANE nurses for short — respond to hospitals about 60 to 90 times a month to see rape victims, said Linda Ebbert, a part-time SANE nurse for Rose Heart, a company contracted by hospitals.
Ebbert said she starts each head-to-toe examination by telling victims exactly what she will do — an effort to reduce further trauma during the invasive exam.
“We try to make it as comfortable for them as we can,” she said. “It’s very traumatic. We always tell them it’s not their fault.”
Ebbert, a nurse for 50 years, said she was drawn to the SANE role because of its likelihood of helping victims. SANE nurses respond to the hospital within about 20 minutes of receiving a call, thereby reducing time victims have to wait.
“It’s all worth it when you have someone who says, ‘Thank you so much for helping me through one of the most difficult days in my life,’” Ebbert said.
If victims wish to see advocates from the Rape Crisis Center, advocates meet with them after the exam and provide them with a packet of information and clothing, in addition to the teddy bear. It’s up to the victim how much, if any, interaction exists beyond that.
“We’re mainly there to listen,” Brook said.
On her first hospital visit, Brook said she expected to encounter an absolutely devastated person. She found the opposite. Since then, Brook said she has seen a wide range of emotions, as victims cope in their own ways.
“Some people are stoic,” she said. “Some people appear to be very numb; some people are sobbing uncontrollably.”
For those who choose to report a sexual assault or get a medical examination, the initial day or two can be “completely overwhelming,” said Elynne Greene, a supervisor of Metro’s victim services detail.
She equates the experience to a funeral.
“Everybody shows up, and everybody hugs the person and everybody is there for support,” Greene said. “Then the next day, they wake up and it’s like, ‘Oh, how do I do this?’”
Advocates from Metro and the District Attorney’s Office help fill that gap with long-term support for victims, helping them navigate the investigative and subsequent judicial process, if prosecutors take a case, Greene said.
Advocates from Metro are civilian employees, meaning they are not held to the same standard as police and, therefore, can support victims without needing a crime report, Greene said. They also provide support to victims struggling after looking at suspect photos or describing the perpetrator to sketch artists.
“We get emails from the detectives saying, 'I just spoke to the victim, and I think she needs some support,’ ” Greene said.
A 21-year-old woman nervously stroked her long, brown hair as she carefully chose the right words. The sexual abuse began five or six years ago.
First, her father began touching her, then the touching escalated to sexual intercourse. Teachers and friends later said they had a feeling something was off because her dad seemed overly worried and showed up immediately if she didn’t answer her phone.
“I could never tell them why and what’s going on,” the woman said. Her dad blamed her for leaving to be with other guys and sleep around.
That wasn’t the final straw, though. It was the thought of her two younger sisters living under his roof. It nagged at her. She told one friend first. That led to a gut-wrenching call to Child Protective Services. Detectives ultimately arrested her father.
She feared the worst from her family, but their support came as a pleasant surprise. Now she has a boyfriend, which is part of her catalyst for attending on this evening.
“I don’t know how to deal with my emotions, and I feel bad,” she said.
The youngest victim the Rape Crisis Center has helped was a baby; the oldest was in her 90s. Occasionally, male victims seek help, too.
Many victims, however, are females in their early to mid-20s, Brook said. Another common denominator: alcohol consumption.
Advocates hope more emphasis on preventive education programs, such as the Rape Crisis Center’s Party Smart campaign, reduces the prevalence of alcohol-related assaults.
As for Las Vegas’ reputation as a party city, authorities aren’t convinced that makes sexual assaults any more likely here compared with other metropolitan areas. The dynamics are often the same, regardless of location, Greene said.
“Girls meet guys,” she said. “They think he’s really cute, and he turns out not to be the person they thought he was.”