Shawn Larson's journey has taken her full circle. From a rape that occurred when she was 16 years old, and another assault when she was in college, she's only been able to move forward by helping others. For a long time, she wasn't sure if she could move on at all.
"I buried it deep," Larson said. "I cut my hair short, I started wearing different clothes and stuck with the girls. I changed my appearance in hopes it would help me feel safe again."
Now the 37-year-old is a coordinator and counselor at Domestic Violence Alternatives & Sexual Assault Center in Marshalltown, where she works on the Sexual Abuse Response Team and facilitates a survivors group.
However it was a long road from victim to advocate. Plagued with feelings of shame and depression she eventually found solace in an on-campus group called Sexual Assault Survivor Advocates. She threw herself into the work, helping found a crisis line and counseling at her college, and even marched to encourage the signing of the first Violence Against Women Act in Washington, D.C.
Years later, she's still seeing the impact of sexual violence, now in people that come to DVA/SAC for help. Her efforts have shifted from her own healing to empowering other women.
"It takes away the very essence of who you are," she says. "How I survived is by helping others."
A local problem
In the past two years, the Marshalltown Police Department has investigated nearly 100 cases of sexual assault. At the forefront of those investigations is Detective Sadie Weekley, who specializes in domestic and sexual assault crimes.
"It happens in every community," Weekley said. "Our rates aren't higher than other places, but it's definitely a problem here - I think it happens everywhere and people need to be aware of it."
Perhaps one of the larger misconceptions is that strangers instigate sexual assaults, however, Weekley said those cases are extremely rare.
"It's usually someone people trust or have some sort of previous relationship or bond with," she said. "A lot of the sexual assaults we do have is someone they know, friends or acquaintances."
How these crimes are investigated is circumstantial. Often reports are delayed because of fear of reporting, retaliation and being believed, Weekley said.
"People are afraid to report," she said.
However, police will look into a sexual assault no matter how long ago it happened, she said, but more evidence can be collected the sooner a report is filed. Further, detectives are available to answer questions regardless of whether a person wants to make an official report or not.
Help for survivors
Domestic Violence Alternatives & Sexual Assault Center is a nonprofit that provides free and confidential services to sexual assault victims of all ages in a four-county area. While providing counseling, a crisis line and a safe shelter, the agency assisted more than 100 sexual assault victims and took more than 170 calls on the crisis line last fiscal year.
Dotti Thompson, executive director for DVA/SAC, said research and experience shows those numbers are probably extremely low for the number of sexual assaults that are occurring.
"Victims don't want to come forward because they don't want the stigma of being a sexual assault survivor," Thompson said. "All the things that society says about sexual assault victims they have internalized - 'I shouldn't have been out at that time, I shouldn't have been drinking, I shouldn't have been with that person, the clothes I wore' ... they believe those things too because they've been conditioned to believe that if you've been sexually assaulted you must have done something to cause it."
False reporting for sexual assault is at the same level as any false report for any crime, which is about 2 percent, Thompson said. It can take anywhere from four to six hours for a victim admitted to the emergency room to be examined and interviewed, she said.
"So when we hear someone say 'oh she's making that up or she's lying' we try to walk them through what a victim really goes through," Thompson said. "Our society has said it's hard for us to believe that another person would harm someone in that way without provocation."
However the realities of sexual assault are a far cry from what society says, according to Thompson.
"A lot of people think it's about a sex drive ... what it's really about is one person wanting to have control in a situation and they use sexual contact to get that control," she said. "It's not the stranger that jumps out in an alley as they are walking to their car. Eighty to 90 percent of victims know their perpetrator in some way - the stranger myth is not the reality for most people."
DVA/SAC advocates are generally called to hospitals to be a source of support during that time. Advocates are also available for law enforcement interviews, court proceedings and individual and peer counseling, she said.
"What I would encourage the community to do is educate themselves on the reality of sexual assaults," Thompson said. "Take the time to learn what a victim really goes through, and find out what the lasting results of sexual assault are. They are the potential jurors in sexual assault cases."
At DVA/SAC victims of sexual crimes are called survivors, she said.
"It takes courage and strength to continue to get out of bed every day after someone has violated you at that level," she said. "They truly are survivors."