THE BUZZ 3: Suffering in Silence

By on July 5, 2017

How Jackson Hole dynamics have created a culture that normalizes non-consensual sex.

(Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In the nine years she’s lived in Jackson, Jaclyn “JJ” Jaroch has been sexually assaulted twice, first by someone she was casually dating, and more recently, by a friend. It wasn’t immediately obvious to her what happened was, in fact, assault. In a town often compared to a college campus, drunken hookups are the norm and it’s not always easy to differentiate between a misguided fling and a violation.

Sexual assault is primarily committed by men against women. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives. However, the number may be higher—sexual assault is often underreported.

Jaroch’s experiences highlight why rape is underreported, especially in Jackson Hole, where a transient lifestyle, party culture, and housing crisis contribute to a unique sexual culture that normalizes non-consensual sex and discourages survivors from coming forward.

“A bad ski town hookup”

When she moved to Jackson in 2008, Jaroch, now 32, embraced the ubiquitous opportunities to go out and meet new people. “Looking back, many of those new sexual experiences were coercive and borderline non-consensual because though I did eventually consent, most of the sex I had I didn’t really want. It was sex I thought I was ‘supposed’ to have. Because he wanted it, and that’s what everyone does in a ski town, right? Get drunk and hookup.”

This idea contributed to Jaroch’s confusion about whether what happened to her was assault. She felt a discomfort and shock that she repressed, until one night, out with a new friend, she blurted out that she was raped.

The night of the assault, Jaroch explicitly said she didn’t want to have sex. She was asleep when the person she’d thought of as a friend pulled down her pants and began having sex with her.

However, her assailant wouldn’t call it rape. He would have dismissed what happened as “nothing more than a bad ski-town hookup.”

When Jaroch awoke to find her pants down, she didn’t know what to do. So she tried to participate, to try to make the experience consensual again, to regain control of the moment. She didn’t scream, he wasn’t a stranger in an alley, so from his perspective, it wasn’t rape: “There was no rape kit, no physical evidence, no visible trauma to connote that what had happened really was anything besides a bad hookup.”

Like many women, Jaroch decided not to report it. She didn’t feel she had enough evidence to do so, and the idea of being questioned would have compounded the trauma: “The major thing that kept me from reporting was the mountain of things I could imagine being brought up in a courtroom … I didn’t want my sexual history brought up in public efforts to discredit me. I didn’t want to be accused of ‘asking for it’ because I went to sleep in someone else’s bed.”

Jackson Hole taught Jaroch to “try and be OK with sex I didn’t want.” When she awoke to being assaulted, Jaroch tried to do what she’d done so many times before. “I even attempted to enjoy [it] before finally succumbing to the heebie-jeebies of trying to have sex with someone I never wanted to have sex with in the first place.” She didn’t want that brought up in a courtroom as evidence that she consented.

Not a kind place for victims 

Though rape happens everywhere, some of what Jaroch describes is specifically relevant to a small, rural ski town.

Shannon Nichols, the director of education and prevention for the Community Safety Network (CSN), frequently works with survivors who have had experiences akin to Jaroch’s. “Most people who come to Jackson come without a support group—people are trying to put themselves out there, which leads to choices that put them at risk. At home, you know somebody near you, or you know your way home,” Nichols said. “People come here with the mentality that it’s time to cut loose.”

As Nichols noted, “There’s accountability because it’s a small community, but there’s anonymity too because it’s so transient.”

Nichols says most survivors she works with don’t choose to prosecute. “They want to see justice, but sometimes the process just isn’t worth it,” she said.

Jaroch was correct to be concerned about her personal life being dissected. As Lieutenant Roger Schultz, of Jackson Police Department, said, “When a victim does come forward, the justice system is not kind to them. When prosecution mounts a defense, the defense attorney digs into the lives of the victim to paint a picture that places blame on the victim.”

Even Jackson’s housing crisis impacts survivors’ grappling with reporting. “For example,” Nichols said, “if somebody is sexually assaulted by a co-worker and they’re afraid they’ll lose their housing if they make a report because their housing is connected to their job, and it’s not an immediate safety issue, they know it’s a difficult case to prove and not worth the potential consequences.”

The housing crisis also impacts survivors’ access to care, as Connie Baumer, the lead examiner of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) team at St. John’s, explained. There is no shortage of nurses in Jackson but there is a shortage of housing for them: “I live in Star Valley, another nurse lives in Irwin, and two more live in Victor.” That means that for about 10 nights a month, there is not a SANE nurse in town who can be on call if a sexual assault victim comes to the hospital.

In addition to a housing crisis that prevents the eight SANE nurses from being as present for survivors as they would like, they have to contend with other obstacles endemic to small and rural communities. Baumer has seen women who have traveled to see her from as far as Sublette and Lincoln Counties. Both of those counties have SANE nurses, but in one of the hospitals, there’s a visible waiting room for sexual assault victims. “It’s a small town, and if someone sees you in there, they know why you’re there,” Baumer said. 

Baumer and her team perform examinations on anywhere from 12 to 20 women a year. However, they know there are many more women who experience rape than they ever see. Baumer believes much of this can be attributed to victim blaming. “There’s still a stigma around being assaulted, and people still aren’t believed,” she said. “Look at the Bill Cosby case. People don’t want to be seen as victims, or they don’t want to get someone in trouble, they feel like they did something wrong, or they don’t want their parents to know.”

In addition, because most rapes are by acquaintances, some women don’t see the point of collecting DNA evidence. “An acquaintance won’t deny that sexual contact happened,” CSN’s Nichols said, “they will deny that it was nonconsensual.”

If women do decide to seek medical care, it can be trying. The SANE nurses do a full body and pelvic exam to gather evidence that can be used to prosecute a rapist. The exam must happen shortly after sexual contact, and it can be uncomfortable for patients. “They want to forget about what happened, not remember,” Baumer said.

Ideally, survivors are not supposed to change their clothes, shower, or even go to the bathroom beforehand—all can interfere with the nurse’s ability to gather evidence, which can include semen, pubic hair, or saliva. Though it can be difficult, Baumer also sees that it gives women the opportunity to reclaim control. “They have to go through a lot, in the end they appreciate it. I’ve seen women be so grateful for the evidence,” she said.

Rape kits are sent to the crime lab in Cheyenne, where they are destroyed after 1.5 years. Survivors have that amount of time to decide if they want to use it. Though this is not a problem in Wyoming, many towns and states have a backlog of untested rape kits—sometimes tests languish for decades without the money or resources to get them tested, preventing the prosecution of rapists.

The SANE team notices an influx in sexual assault cases seasonally and during events. “It’ll be around events like the hill climb and during summer,” Baumer said.

Nichols confirms these trends—the number of people seeking CSN’s services dramatically increases during the summer. Many of those people work for the park, which Nicholas describes as the ultimate college-type environment.

“When you come to Jackson, there are expectations”

Schultz said the police department does all it can to empower survivors to make choices about their cases. “Victims didn’t have the choice in being a victim,” he said. “When they report, they should have a say in where their case goes.”

Many survivors won’t report to law enforcement or receive a medical exam, but Schultz said it has been the informal policy of Jackson Police Department to allow victims to make “informational reports.” This means they can talk to an officer and name their assailant without an investigation being launched. “It’s not an official policy … but [victims] need control, and we don’t want to act against their wishes and consent,” he said.

Despite their options, many survivors don’t know how to move forward without further traumatization. Many blame themselves, or dismiss their experiences.

When asked how many of her female friends have been assaulted in Jackson Hole, 33-year-old Justine (not her real name) replied without hesitation: “Every single one.” But, she added, “They might say they were raped, but then they’d immediately say, ‘Oh well I was drunk,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have gone home with him,’ or ‘It wasn’t that bad.”

Women learn how not to get raped, or how to deal with the aftermath of assault, Justine said. “But men don’t learn how to not rape, how to ask for consent.” These experiences can be especially painful for women because perpetrators are so often friends or acquaintances. “Everybody knows everybody,” she said.

This can be good, Nichols said, if people feel a responsibility for their fellow Jacksonites. A new CSN campaign seeks to shift sexual culture in Jackson by placing power with individuals to end sexual violence, and creating community standards around sex.

“The idea is that our individual actions impact sexual assault … and, when you come to Jackson, there are expectations. For example, you don’t poach the powder. We have guidelines.”

Nichols hopes expectations of respect and consideration can apply to more than ski lines.

For Jaroch, shifting the valley’s sexual culture will also require acknowledging rape culture as a reason why many local women have experienced sexual violence, and why men aren’t often held responsible.

“I now understand that the mountain of things that kept me from reporting is the definition of rape culture,” Jaroch said. She defines this as “a sexual culture that celebrates a man’s ability to conquer, control, and dismiss a woman … and that capitalizes on a woman’s expected and stereotypical weakness to take away her agency and strength.” PJH

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