SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and other Utah House Democrats joined advocates for victims of sexual assault on the Capitol steps Wednesday morning to promote awareness for Start By Believing Day.
During the 2015 Legislature, Romero sponsored HCR1, designating the first Wednesday in April as Start By Believing Day. The resolution expressed support for victims of sexual assault, as well as End Violence Against Women International's Start By Believing campaign.
After the Legislature passed the resolution, End Violence Against Women International adopted the day of observance and began promoting Start By Believing Day around the world, Romero said.
"The premise of the Start By Believing program is incredibly simple. It is for everybody in our community to consider how would you react if someone told you they were sexually assaulted or raped," said Julie Valentine, an assistant teaching professor at BYU's College of Nursing.
The goal, Romero said, is to transform victims into survivors.
Questions such as what the victim was wearing or whether they were drinking are not positive reactions, and they contribute to self-blame, Valentine said.
"When loved ones react negatively to a victim's disclosure of sexual assault, it has a damaging effect on victims over and above the impact of the sexual assault itself," she said.
"We want to make sure that nobody ever feels like a victim, that they become a survivor, and that people believe them and they get the help that they need," Romero said.
According to Romero, 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males in Utah will be sexually assaulted before age 18.
"We actually do have a higher rate of rape and sexual assault than the national average," said Alana Kindness, executive director of Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Kindness said sexual assault rates in Utah have stayed the same or even increased, while most other types of violent crimes have steadily declined.
"We really need to start taking some really strong measures," Kindness said.
During the 2016 session, Romero asked the Legislature to put $1.5 million toward sexual assault prevention. Lawmakers ultimately designated $600,000 in one-time funding for the cause.
Kindness said the money will be used to fund HB286, a bill passed by Romero in 2014 that allows students in kindergarten through sixth grades to receive sexual assault prevention training.
"That's so important because the attitudes and beliefs and behaviors that lead to sexual violence perpetration can start so early. It's not necessarily talking about sex or sex education. It's talking about respect and boundaries," Kindness said, adding that self-worth and the worth of others is also essential to the conversation.
"I think that a huge piece of this is comprehensive sex education," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.
King attempted to pass a sex education bill, HB246, during the 2016 Legislature, but it died in the House Rules Committee.
"The S-word is something that … triggers all sorts of feelings as opposed to thoughts sometimes, and the feelings overwhelm the thoughts," King said. "That's a little frustrating, but we're going to keep working on that."
Romero said the state needs to improve sexual assault awareness.
"Males are left out of that conversation," she said. "Another vulnerable population is the transgender community. It's a much more complicated issue than just women and children."
Romero said law enforcement should have a "victim-centric" approach to sexual assault.
Some law enforcement agencies have adopted the Start By Believing program, Valentine said.
"That does not mean that they do not fully investigate the case," she said. "What it means is that they believe the victim, that they do fully investigate the case."
Valentine said victims who are believed by law enforcement heal faster than those who are not because "they are not revictimized by the system."
"I encourage everyone in our community, in our state, to consider their response. How would they react if someone told them they were sexually assaulted? You start by believing," she said.