Effective sexual violence prevention is a community effort — that’s what researchers concluded in a recent statewide report. In October of 2019 the Center for Healthy Communities at the Michigan Public Health Institute developed the Michigan Sexual Violence Prevention Survey Report set for public debut in early 2020. With roughly 1,200 respondents across the state from both paper and web surveys, it was an effort to provide a metric for sexual violence prevention. The survey’s questions intended to get a sense of not only the general public’s view on sexual violence and its causes but the comfort level of survivors when seeking support from peers and public services.
“Those who choose to use sexual violence should always [be] held solely and fully accountable for their choices; however, communities also have a role to reduce the risk of making that choice,” the report read.
Key questions asked in the process of filing the report included, “How connected are people to their communities?” and “To what extent do people accept rape myths?” However, though these questions approached the issue of sexual violence in a seemingly well-rounded way, demographically this survey left much to be desired in terms of data collection for the state’s most vulnerable communities like people of color and LGBTQ Michiganders.
Sarah Prout Rennie is the executive director of the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. Her organization did not put forth the study but helped draft questions and “interpret it” by providing input. She said that this report only scratches the surface of the reality of sexual violence for all of Michigan’s affected communities.
“There needs to be a better and targeted study. This is sort of our beginning conversation in Michigan, but we would like to seek funding to investigate the populations that were missed by this study,” she said. “This is a general sort of funding by the state to get a sense of the temperature in Michigan but just like folks who are missed by our criminal justice system they get missed by these untargeted and general studies as well.”
The survey’s respondents broke down like this:
“Out of the initial survey respondents, 68.8 percent were women and 31.2 percent were men; 77.4 percent were white, 15.0 percent were African-American, and 2.2 percent were Hispanic,” it read. “However, the survey results presented in this report are weighted by population proportion to be representative of the actual demographics of adults in the State of Michigan. The survey was broken up into sections including connectedness, economic supports, harmful social norms and support for survivors.”
Despite a note that 1.7 percent of respondents identified as transgender and .6 percent were in a legal domestic partnership, the survey failed to include any LGBTQ-specific questioning — despite the fact that the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47 percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.
Rennie said that regardless of it being weighted, the study’s lack of intersectionality was a key miss, and had the Coalition conducted the study there would have been a more intentional focus on inclusion.
“We try to be very intersectional in our lens but we do see this data as very useful generally to point out some key general issues surrounding Michigan and it’s our hope that we will continue to reach out to LGBTQ folks and also marginalized folks to get better data as we move forward,” she said. “But in terms of funding, that really will depend on the state of Michigan. It may have to happen anecdotally or more in microcosm or grassroots. And the Coalition has an initiative in Detroit that works specifically with Fair Michigan, particularly with the efforts with the prosecutor’s office and the advocate Julisa [Abad].”
In a collaboration that involved a “network of experts” covering sexual and domestic violence, nonprofit and government sectors and academics, the report dealt with four major categories: connectedness, economic supports, harmful social norms and support for survivors. Here are key findings from each sections.
Overall, the study found that neighborhood connectedness among respondents is low and that it was the lowest among the connectedness categories including Workplace, Place of Worship and Family. More than 50 percent of respondents said that despite a general sense of trust among their neighborhoods, they did not feel connected to neighbors. Regarding sexual violence prevention researchers found this to be a negative observation.
“Communities with high levels of cohesion are more likely to hold offenders accountable for their choices to perpetrate, as well as to provide more support for victims of violence,” the survey read.
However, among the Family Connectedness category respondents reported a general sense of willingness to help, value-sharing and feeling of safety. Each of these questions received positive responses from respondents that numbered at over 70 percent. These results were mirrored in Place of Worship connectedness, with the minimum response rate being 80 percent in the affirmative, and the workplace followed closely behind with 67 percent being the lowest response. Questions in each of these categories focused on trust, willingness to help, how close-knit community members are, how members get along, values shared, fairness and safety.
– Economic Supports:
This section’s key findings said that quality childcare is needed — with 2 out of 5 respondents reporting that their childcare needs require a minimum of at least 10 hours weekly — that childcare problems impact employment — 1 in 8 said that problems with childcare resulted in problems that required a change of employment — and that paid parental leave is lacking, as fewer than 40 percent of women in jobs reported having access to paid parental leave.
– Harmful Social Norms:
This survey found that sexism persists in Michigan.
“Almost half of Michiganders believe that women get a kick out of teasing men sexually and then rejecting them. More than a third of participants think women are too easily offended,” the report read.
Additionally, consent in long-term relationships is misunderstood, with almost 25 percent of respondents reporting that do not think getting consent is important when sexually touching a spouse or longtime partner.
Among other notable results, over half of respondents felt that feminists make unreasonable demands of men.
– Support for Survivors:
Notably, more than a third of Michiganders “agreed with the most popular [rape] myths, including those that blame survivors and excuse perpetrators’ behavior.” There is also a gap between what people hope will happen and what “often actually happens” when survivors report an instance of sexual violence.
“Unfortunately, we know from survivors’ reports that community and institutional support is not as common as it may seem from the aspirational results in this report,” the survey reads.
For example, 87 percent of respondents said that they would support someone who makes a report of sexual violence, 88 percent reported that the police would take the report seriously and 85 percent said that prosecutors would take action against the offenders. Rennie said that this discrepancy can be attributed to confirmation bias, which is a phenomenon where respondents feel they will react more positively than they might in reality. She said that only systemic change and similar studies can help to bridge the gap between opinion and reality.
“And that’s reflected in the fact that less than 3 percent of sexual assault perpetrators are prosecuted and end up in prison. So there’s a huge disconnect in what we think we know as a society, and that was really important and what we actually are doing,” Rennie said. “… We need more money and interventions earlier in the curriculum. And it really is about changing social norms at the end of the day.”
Room for Improvement
Equality Michigan’s Director of Victim Services Serena A. Johnson works to help victims of sexual violence in the LGBTQ community and especially for survivors of color. She said she was never contacted directly to include her organization’s relevant data or resources, but would have gladly done so.
“Reporting in general within the LGBT community in our part specifically within the African-American LGBT community, the numbers of sexual assault and rape are extremely high in regards to the black trans women of color in Detroit. And it often goes either unreported, or it’s reported and dismissed — and it’s missed … including [by] law enforcement because much of the time this population, when they do report rape or things of that nature, there are times when the population has participated in sex work or things of that nature.”
Johnson said that this reality can contribute to a general attitude of distrust between the LGBTQ community, particularly among transgender women of color, and the police.
“So whereas a white counterpart might report rape and things of that nature and it’s taken for what it is as rape, when black trans women report it there’s 50 questions of, ‘What’s your profession? What do you do?’ So then it gets [mis]construed and then it’s not necessarily documented as rape — if it’s documented at all,” Johnson said. “So, for that reason, a lot of the time the community does not report it, and it’s the same for many white trans women.”
When asked about the selected questions in the report, Johnson said that while some were effective, others didn’t have an inclusive focus.
“For example, ‘People in my neighborhood generally get along with each other’ — you could watch the news and hear about the inner-city streets and safety and already know that neighborhood connectedness is not going to be — or ‘economic support.’ This is for who filled it out; This is specific to the white women who have the majority. … Majority [surveyed are] higher income, majority employed, majority married. … So a lot of the time when I see reports like this one … it’s just not accurate to the community that I see on a daily basis.”
Ways to Improve
Johnson went on to say that because of existing biases, many reports like this one either unintentionally or intentionally ignore those communities with which she works. Beyond simply being exclusionary, often studies like these can fuel resentment and distrust among those communities who aren’t being heard. When asked how she would change they way this particular survey was conducted, she urged the survey-makers to focus on hiring “members who look like the community they’re trying to reach or say that they reach.”
“Not only should they hire them, but they should work to keep them employed with their organization, meaning it’s one thing to hire a trans woman of color but then it’s another thing when you decide to fire her three months later because she doesn’t have transportation to work,” Johnson said. “So it has to be a dedication to reaching that community and knowing that in order to reach that community you have to have members on your staff, on your team, that can actually be on the ground that look like the community that you’re trying to serve.”
Rennie agrees. She said that although the Coalition has more work to do regarding its inclusivity, efforts have already begun.
“We received funding for a statewide sexual assault resources hotline 855-VOICES-4. That is queer-friendly,” she said. “We are actively hiring trans folks and queer folks, as well as it’s run by a gay man to make sure that we’re more aware of sexual violence. So, I want people to know that’s a state resource if folks want to just call and talk about any victimization, because we get people who call who were victimized as children or 10 years ago but they need to deal through their emotional crisis.”
Ideally, the hotline will serve to both protect and connect vulnerable community members with the adequate resources that they need. However, Johnson also emphasized that those who are a part of vulnerable communities and who aren’t comfortable with reaching out to a state-run project should also feel empowered to utilize any of Equality Michigan’s available resources for sexual violence prevention and care.
“Equality Michigan is dedicated to working with other organizations that have made it their primary goal to be inclusive of the community that they say that they serve,” Johnson said. “We’re here to work with everybody. That’s our goal.”