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Sexual Assault Prevention in the Face of COVID-19

By Darcy McConnell

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, evidence continues to emerge indicating that the ongoing crisis is having serious adverse consequences relating to sexual assault and abuse. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), in the U.S. alone, 433,648 people (12 years or older) experience sexual assault every year, the vast majority of whom are women and girls. TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming or nonbinary) people are also at much higher risk of sexual assault than cisgender men and women. Now, various consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and societies’ responses to it appear to be compounding the problem. Reports of child sexual abuse have risen, for instance; at the same time, practitioners report that fewer survivors of sexual assault have sought care or assistance.

As has been highlighted repeatedly in the media and by advocates, the pandemic and the associated measures enacted by experts and governments have had troubling effects on individuals facing domestic violence or abuse, which often includes sexual assault and abuse. UN Women has noted a marked increase in reports of sexual and physical violence against women in affected areas. Lack of safety, violence, and abuse in homes may be increasing due to stress and social isolation. Furthermore, stay-at-home orders and fears of contracting the virus are keeping those experiencing domestic abuse, including sexual abuse, in close quarters with their abusers. Amanda Taub of The New York Times even referred to the global increase in domestic abuse as “another public health crisis...flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.”

However, the current situation has other implications for survivors of sexual assault, including those who may not be quarantined in the same spaces as their assaulters. In normal times, it is difficult enough for many survivors of sexual assault to access adequate care and/or legal assistance, for reasons such as the stigma attached to sexual assault, the prohibitive distance between rural survivors and trained examiners, etc. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates these difficulties. For example, medical resources have suddenly and overwhelmingly been reallocated toward the pandemic response, leaving much less bandwidth for other healthcare needs. This makes it more difficult, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous for those who have been assaulted to access health services and emergency care (including time-sensitive services such as the collection of medical evidence).

Even where these services are available and accessible, survivors may not want to visit hospitals or other healthcare facilities, due to fears of contracting COVID-19 or a desire to not further overwhelm the healthcare system. Furthermore, other concerns may simply take priority. Today, unemployment rate is rising (more steeply for women, particularly women of color), frontline workers (also predominantly women) face longer hours and stressful or dangerous work environments, and those with dependents are taking on additional household labor and caring duties (and yes, women are more likely to shoulder this burden, as well). In this context, people who have experienced sexual assault may be forced to focus their energy on paying rent, feeding their families, searching for jobs, or getting a few hours of sleep between shifts.

In addition, many advocates and mental health professionals have begun working remotely. While this shift may seem like it would improve access to care, this can actually pose a challenge, especially for survivors of sexual assault who do not have a safe or stable home or a device from which to teleconference. Furthermore, demand and waitlists for mental health services have ballooned, making advocacy, therapy, and psychiatric services more difficult to access for first-time patients, which recent survivors of sexual assault often are. This is to say nothing of the cost of mental healthcare itself. Again, as unemployment rises, spending extra money on healthcare is out of the question for many people who have been sexually assaulted.

In general, survivors of sexual assault may feel increasingly isolated from their support networks, as face-to-face interactions and journeys outside the home are minimized. The current state of lockdown has led to adverse mental health outcomes for large numbers of people. For those who have experienced the trauma of sexual assault, this distress may be felt even more acutely.

Forensic nurses, healthcare practitioners, mental health professionals, and advocates are doing what they can to increase accessibility and to encourage survivors to seek help, but more resources are necessary. For example, increased statistics on sexual assault and violence during the COVID-19 crisis could go a long way toward guiding effective responses on the ground. Therefore, more reliable, widely-available data on rates of assault and abuse since early 2020 would be helpful, especially if categorized by variables such as race, class, sexual orientation, etc. In addition, frontline grassroots organizations need increased financial support, in both the short and long term, as do shelters, helplines, and awareness campaigns. Our systems must adapt to the inevitability of social distancing measures continuing in the long-term, by improving and expanding remote reporting mechanisms, as well as efforts to reach women who have little or no access to phones or internet service. These efforts could provide survivors with the resources they need to report abuse, receive assistance, and find safety.

For any person who is experiencing or has experienced sexual assault or abuse, a few resources are listed below:

Crisis Text Line | Text HOME to 741741

Intimate Partner Violence (fact sheet)

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