Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It Never Ends: The Trauma of Sexual Assault

By Robin Sax

Is it hard to believe that a victim of sexual assault still feels vulnerable 22 years later, at the age of 82? I don’t think so at all. But when I read an article in the LA Times (August 17, 2009) about Arline Mathews, who is fighting the release of the serial rapist who attacked her in 1987, I was struck by her words: "I have a responsibility to my sisters in the world to do what I can to prevent his going free.”

Arline Mathews is still fearful of her attacker, Lloyd Anthony Roy, and still worries he might rape her or someone else once he's released. The article describes her as feeling brushed off, or dismissed as paranoid, because she's afraid Roy will come back to get her. She's convinced the justice system won't protect her. In the L.A. Times, she said, “He told me many times that he would kill me, that he'd killed others.”

The Times article focuses on a question that puzzles many: how a serial rapist who targets seniors was allowed to plea-bargain to a sentence short enough to let him re-offend? I, too, want to know why he was sentenced to so little time, given what seemed like a tight case against a really bad dude. The prosecutor bundled eight sexual assaults pinned on Roy, allowing him to only plead guilty on only three.

Besides the seemingly unjust sentence, I was struck even more by the brutal impact of the sex crime on Arline Mathews. Roy repeatedly and believably threatened to kill her, saying he'd done so to others. He rambled on about preferring to assault older women because, he said, they are weaker and less likely to struggle. At one point, he whispered, "I usually smother my victims."

Roy has a mental-fitness hearing set for August 2011, after which he will most likely be released into society. Under previous California sentencing rules, invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago, inmates are released,without a parole hearing,after they serve half their sentences. For Roy, now 57, that means he'll have served 22 years of his 44-year sentence. The only hope of keeping him in custody is for Department of Corrections mental health experts to find that he has a mental disorder making him so dangerous to others that he must be confined to a mental hospital.

You may think, “Of course the Department of Corrections will find that he’s still a danger to society,” but don’t bank on it. The mental-health evaluators in such hearings rely on the inmate’s case file and use standard psychological tests, which measure a violent predator’s likelihood to re-offend. His victims won't be interviewed, nor their pain taken into consideration, during the evaluation. That's not very comforting to Arline Mathews -- or to me. Nor should it be; state records show that in the last 13 years, only two percent of the 27,000 sex offenders evaluated were confined to a mental hospital after release from prison.

A small consolation for Mathews is this: if her attacker is set free, he may have to register as a sex offender. His name on a sex-offender registry would allow her to find out where he is living. Although it may do little to help ease her personal fears, it will alert others.

Mathews may also choose to get a restraining order against her attacker – but understandably, that may not help to ease her fears.

What are the lasting effects of a sexual assault on the psyche of the victim? It may seem obvious that victims continue to suffer at any age, even many years after the attack. The American Journal of Psychiatry finds rape victims are significantly more depressed, generally anxious, and more fearful than people who haven't experienced a sexual attack.

What are the raw numbers telling us? According to U.S. Department of Justice document, Criminal Victimization in the United States, victims reported close to 200,000 rapes or sexual assaults the past year. But it's estimated that only 16% of rapes and sexual assaults are actually reported to the police (“Rape in America: A Report to the Nation”). One in six American women has experienced an attempted or completed rape. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates 93 percent of rape victims are female.

Mathews was attacked by a stranger. But the notion that strangers attack women in shadowy parking lots or slip in through windows at night is exaggerated. The reality: attackers are often acquaintances, friends of friends, or colleagues -- people whom victims know and may even trust. In one survey, only two percent of those who said they were sexually assaulted also said the attacker was a stranger.

The Trauma Intervention Program (TIP) is a national non-profit organization that provides emotional and practical support to trauma victims. It reports that almost all rape victims suffer severe and long-lasting emotional damage -- from rape and from attempted rape.

In fact, the sexual aspects of rape aren't the most shocking and damaging. TIP lists five distinct, lasting shocks of rape: 1) It is sudden and arbitrary. 2) It seems life-threatening. 3) It's meant to violate the target physically and/or render her helpless. 4) The victim is forced to participate in the crime. 5) The victim cannot prevent the assault or control the assailant; her normal coping strategies fail. She is a victim of someone else's rage and aggression.

Besides the physical violation, sexual assault violates basic beliefs and assumptions about her environment (that it is safe and predictable), about other people and relationships (that she can trust others and share mutual respect), and about herself (her competence, self-confidence, and self-esteem). She comes face-to-face with her vulnerability to serious harm.

Therefore, sexual assault is emotionally expensive: it usually costs the victim her sense of safety, control, trust, autonomy, integrity, and self-esteem.

Arline’s case is an example of the worst of the worst. It’s the worse type of crime, the worst type of predator, with the worst emotional result. Like Arline, I feel it's my duty to make you aware so that you, too, can do your part to ensure that Lloyd Anthony Roy stays in prison, where he belongs.

What can you do? Send a letter to the California Department of Corrections, the Los Angeles County District Attorney, the governor, the state attorney general, and blog, advocate, and let your voices be heard!


Leah said...

As a woman I appreciate Arlene's sense of responsibility to protect other women. It is too bad that the penal system doesn't share her feelings of responsibility to protect the public from violent criminals like him.

Eva said...

I wonder if the article (or your blog!) has or will motivate the police to run his DNA for any potential cold hits...the most realistic way he might be kept behind bars.

Anonymous said...

Serving 22 years on 8 rape cases is a crime in and of itself! It's unbelievable that he was given so little time and will soon enough be free to prey on senior citizens again. I hope her efforts to keep him behind bars are successful. . .and why aren't I seeing this in the news, instead of more misinformed and/or ignorant protesters at health-care rallies? this is far more important than manufactured outrage!

Anonymous said...

This is terrifying...as someone who just went through this, I don't even want to start thinking about this person being released...he is sick and dangerous and he needs to be detained...is it cheaper for the justice system to set him free and deal with new problems? I bet tax payers would be happy to know their money was being used to keep people like this from doing harm...hell, I know I'd pay a little extra to keep my attacker from hurting someone else later...

Imitrex said...

so bad that people who walk in the street, each day the violations increase, and that's too bad because aside from all mental problems can create strange sexual disorderss and even strangers Mental problems