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Beyond the numbers

Survivors of rape seek justice for an underreported crime

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2012 00:12

Peter Moschella sat still with small pink ribbons tied to his tan loafers as his granddaughter spoke before an audience about the fifth annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event in October.

Peter traveled from Boston to visit Elizabeth. This day meant a lot to her, so it meant a lot to him, too.

Elizabeth wore her purple, fluffy slippers and walked around the MLK Plaza — they were comfortable

compared to the four-inch heels worn by the men around her who came to speak out against sexual violence.

To Elizabeth, being able to speak out and see others speak out was justice — a concept often elusive for survivors of sexual battery.

Three days before she started college, Moschella attended a party at a friend’s house. A guy she thought was kind of cute gave her a glass of water, and she wondered if maybe she would get his number by the end of the night.

But the cuteness soon wore off.

It turned out the water he gave her was drugged, she said, and as she began to feel worse, he began to lead her to a room she didn’t want to go to. He dragged her away into a room, in front of a roomful of people who did nothing, she said, and raped her. 

When she regained consciousness, she left, she said. She was “completely shattered.”

But immediately after, Moschella wanted to put it behind her.

“At the time, I said, ‘What did I do wrong?,’” she said. “‘Bad things happen to bad people, so what had I done wrong?’ I thought I was starting college and starting a new chapter of my life, so it took a couple

of months before it really hit.”

She wondered what the social etiquette was for this. Was it OK to tell someone this had happened? No one had ever told her anything like it before.

Three months after the incident, she decided to tell three close friends.

“When I finally opened up to them, they told me I deserved it,” she said. “They said, ‘Didn’t you know white shorts were target shorts?’ ‘What did you expect?’ ‘Weren’t you kind of flirting with him? You said you wanted to get his number, so what did you expect?’ It was not the reaction I was hoping for. At the time I thought they were right, I did deserve it. I blamed myself. I hated myself for everything that had happened to me.”

Reporting it wasn’t something she thought she should do at the time. She wanted to forget it.

* * *

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four college women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape.

At USF, two accounts of sexual battery were reported to University Police (UP) within three weeks at the beginning of this semester. Five accounts have been reported to UP this year. One was reported in 2011, nine were reported in 2010, one was reported in 2009 and three were reported in 2008.

Thirty-six accounts were reported to the Center for Victim Advocacy and violence prevention during the 2011-12 academic year and 40 the year before.

But at a university with 27,405 female students, according to USF InfoMart, the numbers reported don’t add up.

Nanci Newton, director of the Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention, said rape is an extremely underreported crime.

“Underreporting of rape by college students is pretty much for the same reasons we see in any other population of rape victims,” she said. “In society there is a huge stigma about certain kinds of victimization, and rape is one of those kinds of victimizations that really evokes unfortunate, insensitive responses in a lot of people. Unfortunately in our society, rape victims are still pretty much blamed for having been victimized.”

Sometimes the reporting process itself is difficult.

“The wrong questions get asked by people in response to finding out about rape,” Newton said. “The first questions are typically, ‘Well, what was the victim doing?’ or ‘Where did this happen?’ or ‘Did she know him or not?’ Why aren’t they saying, ‘Why would someone do that to someone?’ Why is the attention drawn to the victim instead of what’s going on with the offender? The spotlight is always pointed in the wrong direction, and most women know that. Rape is one of the few crimes where everything the victim does before, during and after is called into question. If somebody is robbed of their money or their house is broken into, they’re not questioned in that way.”

Rape, Moschella said, is one of the few crimes in which victims often blame themselves.

UP Public Information Officer Lt. Charlotte Domingo said that a law enforcement perspective, reporting is helpful to “identify the bad guy and put him in jail.”

But reporting can sometimes be hard, she said.

“It tends to be something most people don’t want to talk about, and when you report to law enforcement, you have to answer questions about what happened,” she said. “Sometimes, more than once.”

But even for those who report, defining justice is a difficult concept.

* * *

After UP finishes its investigation, the case is sent to the State Attorney’s Office for prosecution. The victims are then re-interviewed and the investigation starts again.

“Law enforcement must first initiate the investigation,” Rita Peters, chief of Hillsborough State Attorney’s sex crimes division, said. “Their standard is much, much lower than mine.”

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