Sexual Assault by Strangers – on the Rise?

A few weeks ago a friend shared information on a recent spree of attacks on and around Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), right near my old apartment in Richmond, VA.  It was frightening for me, as I used to walk in the direct of VCU frequently to go out to eat, meet up with friends, and get to the gym.  One of the incidents actually occurred just a block from that gym. Another occurred at 9:30am in a parking lot I used to use when taking classes.

Last week Fem2.0 had a post by Rachel Stein about recent incidents of sexual assault in the South Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the past ten months there have been 12 reported sexual assaults in the area, which police believe have been committed by just a few people.  According to the New York Times, Police have increased the number of squad cars and uniformed police in the area and have been working to make sure residents are aware of the issue.

In Washington, DC incidents have been on the rise around the Suitland Metro Station in Maryland, where on September 19th and 27th, and October 6th a man with a gun grabbed a woman on her way to or from the metro station.  In each incident a man grabbed a woman, and in each incident, the man had a gun.  Police are currently working under the theory of one suspect committing each crime.

At George Washington University, the number of reported incidents of sexual assault on campus has risen from 5 in 2007 to 12 in 2010.  It is difficult to tell if the rise in numbers is due to the rise in incidents, or a rise in reporting of incidents.  However 20% of college women are victims of sexual assault.  While an increase in reports is a huge step in the right direction, people may fear what more accurate numbers tell them.

With all of these coming to my attention in just the last few weeks I can’t help but wonder, is sexual assault on the rise?  Bad economic times often see increases in alcohol abuse and domestic violence.  Is it fair to say this is part of it?  It is hard for DC residents to ignore increases in crime around the city, including neighborhoods long seen as safe, as has happened over the last couple years.

I know at times I take for granted how secure my neighborhood is.  With quiet residential streets, the occasional person out walking their dog is about all you’ll see after 9 or 10pm.  In other areas of the city I find the constant flow of people on the sidewalks and traffic on the streets to be reassuring – if someone were to grab me wouldn’t people see?  If someone tried to mug me wouldn’t there be witnesses?

As Abigail Collazo pointed out her post a couple weeks ago, we worry about the wrong crime being committed while walking down the street. It is incredibly unlikely a stranger will grab you and drag you off somewhere to rape you, though the thought has occurred to me when walking in through an iffy neighborhood alone.  People are much more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger.  So why do we need to pay so much attention to where we are and who is around us? Because you don’t know what else can happen.  These increases in sexual assaults appear to be committed by strangers. Whether it is rape or sexual assault, it is still illegal, and violating the victim.

Let’s help each other stay safe! Pay attention to your surroundings, and be aware of what is happening around you.  Keep your eyes and ears open, and not hooked into a cell phone or MP3 player.  Keep your head up and walk with a purpose.  Here is a rule many of my friends and I follow – when leaving a friends late at night, make a plan to text each other once home – even if it’s just a few blocks. And don’t do what I do and forget!  Stick to routes that are well lit.  Trust your gut – if something doesn’t feel right or safe, figure out how to get yourself somewhere you will feel safe!

The number one way to prevent rape and sexual assault: don’t rape, don’t sexually assault.

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