Exit Site

Focusing on What Matters: Prioritizing Sexual Violence over Substance Use

As sexual assault response teams (SARTs) and other multi-disciplinary teams work through best practices and approaches to sexual assault cases, teams begin to see patterns of victim and systems responder behaviors. One of these patterns revolved around the issue of substance use, and so, it is important to address some examples of what that might look like in your area. We’ve already addressed victim blame this month, so I won’t get into that here. When it comes to practices and protocols, I’ve seen two major themes emerge from these discussions in the team setting: (1) legality and consumption, (2) victim choices. Let’s dig a little deeper on each.

  1. Legality and consumption of substances continues to be a barrier when reporting sexual violence. What might this look like? It might be that a victim took an illegal substance prior to the assault or was drinking while underage. Similarly, friends might be hesitant to help report an assault or help a victim/survivor get services if they think they may face consequences for violating laws around substance use. People—victims or others—being afraid that substance uses will be prioritized over the act of sexual violence results in fewer reports/service seeking behaviors of much more serious crimes. I’ve worked with victim/survivors who waited months/years to report because at the time they were afraid of getting in trouble for something. They also feared that systems responders would blame them for their assaults because they had willingly engaged in substance use. This take us to the next theme for teams to consider when working on protocols and policies for team members.
  2. Victim choices regarding substance use can be used by perpetrators as a tool to prevent reporting or seeking services. Further, teams can sometimes begin to focus on victims’ choices and question the legitimacy of an assault. Whether a victim chooses to consume substances does not change that an assault occurred. If systems providers get “stuck” on victim choices around substance, this can create a chilling effect—an effect that reduces,, discourages, or delays reporting. It’s important to prepare and develops policies around working with victims who have consumed substances. This might be a script or a formal policy that indicates victims and those trying to aid victims will not experience legal sanctions for the consumption of substances and the services will focus on the assault.

Both of these themes present barriers to reporting sexual violence if the team does not discuss how to best handle these realities. In either case, best practice is to prioritize the crime of sexual violence that has occurred. In teams I’ve lead or worked with, it is important to get law enforcement and prosecution on-board with not charging for crimes related to substance use, because they hold power in this context.

Teams should focus their efforts on prioritizing sexual violence crimes over substance use in order to reduce barriers to reporting and service seeking.

Now that we’ve covered this topic, what have you seen on your teams? How have you kept team members focused on prioritizing sexual violence over substance use? Any helpful tips or questions, leave them in the comments!