The indictment of Bryon Hefner, the husband of state Sen. Stan Rosenberg, on multiple counts of sexual assault, including five felony charges, demonstrates a fundamental truth of the #MeToo movement: listening to — and believing — survivors is the only way forward.
It is extremely unusual for prosecutors to bring charges in cases of sexual assault. The most recent illustration of this would be Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s decision not to prosecute Harvey Weinstein, even though police investigators had obtained a tape recording of Weinstein admitting that he had groped Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez.
Although there have been many commendable efforts to deal with bias in the criminal legal system, multiple studies find that police and prosecutors often approach cases of sexual assault with misinformation and bias that lead them to believe — before they’ve learned a single fact about a case —that most allegations of sexual assault are false.
In truth, false reports of sexual assault are unusual. But the widespread belief that most reports of rape and sexual assault are exaggerations or outright lies persists. And this belief, ironically, can reinforce a prosecutor’s decision not to try a case for fear that a jury will not believe the survivor.
As a result, few of the reports made to law enforcement are ever fully investigated. Of those, few are recommended for prosecution. From that group, even fewer result in indictments, and only a fraction of the cases prosecuted result in convictions. To understand how that bias plays out in real life, consider that in 2016, a Boston Globe investigation found that between the years 2001 and 2013 there had only been 305 successful rape prosecutions in the state.
Over the same 12-year period, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center accompanied approximately 5,400 survivors of sexual assault, just in the Boston area, who required a forensic exam at a hospital emergency room. Add to that figure the many thousands of additional assaults—such as those allegedly perpetrated by Hefner—in which the victims do not require immediate medical attention, and it’s obvious that only a fraction of sexual assaults committed in the state are ever resolved by the criminal justice system. All of this creates a system in which offenders can commit acts of sexual assault with near impunity, often for decades.
Changing this requires dedicated training and resources to unlearn habits of bias and learn new techniques for interviewing and prosecuting these cases. It also requires cultural change. It is likely that one of the reasons Hefner has been indicted is because the survivors disclosed what happened to them in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which is slowly changing cultural understanding around the ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault, particularly in the workplace.
In a joint statement announcing the indictments that was released with Attorney General Maura Healey, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley informed the public that the investigation is ongoing and offered a reminder that the charges against Hefner are “allegations and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
All too often, cases of sexual assault start out with the presumption that survivors are lying. Survivors are made to describe how they were dressed, recall how much alcohol they consumed, and explain all of their subsequent nonconfrontational encounters with the offender. In cases similar to the Hefner allegations, in which the victims are men, survivors are second-guessed for not responding to the assault with a physical counterattack.
Presumably, the survivors who reported what Hefner had done were not subjected to those indignities by investigators. Instead, as Conley noted in his statement, “facts specific to the case” were gathered. The only way that could have happened is if the survivors in this case were afforded what survivors in every case deserve: a willingness to believe them, followed by a real investigation.
As the #MeToo movement continues, we are beginning to see the possibilities and potential of real change when survivors are listened to.
Gina Scaramella is the executive director of The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.