In November 2021, associate dean Dr. Julie L. Valentine co-published a piece with a former judge and current law professor Paul Cassel for The Salt Lake Tribune. The article focuses on the need for a revision in sexual assault provisions. This came after Valentine conducted research that found that only 8% of rape cases in Salt Lake County end in a conviction. The reasons for low levels of prosecution are manifold, but much of it has to do with Utah law.
In order for a perpetrator to be convicted of first-degree rape, there has to be proof that the victim said no. This is a problem for cases where the victim was unable to articulate a lack of consent. “We have a large amount of research that shows that many victims of sexual assault freeze because their brain is overwhelmed with what is happening and goes into a defensive mechanism where they are unable to react,” Dr. Valentine shared. “I will have victims tell me that they weren’t able to talk, that oftentimes they will say, ‘I tried to get away but then I realized I wasn’t able to, and I just laid there because there was nothing I could do.’’ But what legal action can these paralyzed victims take if they can’t prove they said “no”?
Valentine explained, “The next charge under forcible rape is a misdemeanor, which is sexual battery. The problem with misdemeanors is one, they can be expunged, two, the suspect or the perpetrator does not have their DNA entered into CODIS so we can’t track across cases, and three, they don’t go on the registered sex offender as a misdemeanor.” About 30% of the sexual battery charges are pleaded down from rape charges. This means that in cases where a victim is paralyzed or otherwise unable to refuse, the perpetrator only receives up to one year in jail, and DNA is not collected for law enforcement to track between cases.
In Utah, the bridge needs to be gapped in the law between first-degree rape and sexual battery. “Other states have a third-degree felony,” Valentine stated. “In order not to be convicted, the defendant would need to show there was affirmative consent.” In the case of third-degree sexual assault, it doesn’t need to be proven that rejection was given, just that consent was not.
Being falsely accused of a crime would be damaging to someone’s career, relationships, and sense of identity. There is a fear that prosecuting sexual crimes more harshly would put innocent people, particularly men, in a vulnerable position where they are falsely accused. However, this is simply not the prevalent problem that many seem to think it is. Between 2-8% of rape allegations are false. “2-8% is comparable to other crimes,” Valentine explained. “Unfortunately, there is this huge misperception that there are a lot of false reports in rape cases, and multiple studies have shown that is just not true.”
According to RAAIN(Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), 13% of rape victims commit suicide. “Sexual assault trauma has higher levels of PTSD and mental health problems than other forms of trauma, including battle trauma for wars,” Valentine said. “Sexual assault trauma is harder to recover from.” Yet rape is a crime that is underwhelmingly reported. “It is really really difficult for a person to share that they have been raped. They worry that they’re not going to be believed, they’re worried about how other people will then perceive them, they’re worried that it will negatively influence their relationships. 82% of rapes are perpetrated by someone [the victim] knows. So frequently they’re in the same circles [as the perpetrator].” But before a victim reports a rape, they are first processing the betrayal by someone they likely know. “It’s very rare that someone is raped and goes straight to the hospital. Usually, they’re just trying to process what happened to them. The despair that they feel that somebody they know did this to them, that feeling is an overwhelming, earth-shattering experience.” Valentine read in an article a statement she has found to be potent and true: “Rape is a crime which denies an individual’s humanity.” For many victims, reporting the crime is an acknowledgment of this stolen humanity.
Utah has an issue in our perception of the prevalence of false rape allegations that protects perpetrators and harms women. Valentine summed this up perfectly. “In our state, we have higher than the national average [of rapes] and I think that one of the reasons is the low criminal justice system response. Only about 15% of people even report a rape, so most of the time they aren’t even reported, and we’re only prosecuting 10% of those that are reported. We’ve in many ways built a system that supports perpetrators. But the idea, the misperception that there are a lot of false reports of rape harms people coming forward. And if people don’t come forward and say that they were raped, then the cycle just continues and the perpetrators will continue to assault.”
Julie added, “I would hope everyone would be aghast when they learn that 8% of rape cases are prosecuted in Salt Lake County where the victim came in, had a fully collected rape kit, 70% of them have physical injuries, 50% of them have anogenital injuries, and 15% of them are strangled. And we prosecute 8%. That’s a problem.”
If you are a student and would like to get involved in making a change, reach out to Rachel Miner, a research assistant to Valentine Valentine who is coordinating with STASA (Students United Against Sexual Assault) to lobby for legislation. You can reach her at email@example.com
To read Julie Valentine’s article in The Salt Lake Tribune, visit: