Advocates Want More Done to Address Rise in Sexual Assaults



Midtown North Precinct. Photo by Nikita Vashisth

When a woman was raped at a subway station on West 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue in September, city leaders voiced outrage over the ongoing crime in New York City.

But the violent incident also revealed that rapes have increased in Midtown, renewing pleas from sexual assault advocates for more awareness on the issue and better training for healthcare practitioners and police officers, so survivors feel safe enough to come forward.

In the 13th Police Precinct, covering a portion of Lower Midtown on the East Side, there have been 16 rapes this year, an increase of 77.8% since 2020. In the Midtown North Precinct, which spans neighborhoods south of Central Park, there have been 17 rapes, an increase of 41.7%, according to New York City Police Department data.

But advocates say the numbers are likely an undercount, given that sexual assaults have historically been one of the most underreported crimes.

“Nobody can give you an answer about the actual rate of sexual violence in New York City, because it’s not currently being tracked in any real way frequently,” said Emily Miles, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.

In New York City, 1,384 rapes have been reported to the NYPD this year.

“We know statistically that less than 30% of sexual assaults are actually even reported to the police,” said Miles. This is especially true for people of color, immigrants and LGBTQ communities who lack a sense of trust in the police, she said. “They are far less likely to report.”

“The pandemic hit our communities hard,” said Aditi Bhattacharya, deputy director of client services at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, a program that advocates for the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV. “Many survivors report to AVP feeling re-victimized and assaulted by healthcare practitioners who lack cultural competency to understand their bodies, causing physical or emotional pain during a forensic examination for a rape kit, or even in the initial stages of reporting assault to a police officer.”

Stigma and trauma also deter sexual assault survivors from coming forward.

There’s a lack of belief in the criminal justice system, said Miles. “For instance, when a survivor reports the crime, questions of  ‘What were you wearing?’, ‘What were you drinking?’, ‘What were you doing at the time?’ only adds to the trauma.”

The NYPD Special Victims Division, which handles sex crimes, has come under scrutiny for gender bias and its handling of rape cases.

“You can’t expect basic law enforcement training to work with survivors of sexual violence,” said Angela Fernandez, assistant director of Mount Sinai’s Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program.

In some cases, a safety plan needs to be worked out before a sexual assault survivor reports the crime to the police, said Fernandez. “Many of our sexual assault survivors know the person who has perpetrated violence against them, so things become complicated.”

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women has experienced rape in their lifetime, with more than 80% reporting their first assault before the age of 25, including 49% before the age of 18. The same report states that 1 in 26 men experience rape in their lifetime, with 80% reporting their first assault before the age of 25, including 56.6% before the age of 18.

The pandemic also has had an impact on the number of reported rapes in the city.

“We did see a dip throughout 2020 and early 2021 when the pandemic was at its height. But there were also periods where we saw an increase, so it was like an ebb and flow,” said Fernandez, adding that the reasons why the numbers fluctuated were hard to explain. Fear of coming into the hospital and being exposed to the coronavirus could have been one of the reasons, she said.

Empower Center, a clinic that offers comprehensive medical, legal and social services to survivors of sexual violence, saw higher intakes when it switched to online services and treatments during the pandemic.

“For commercial sex trade survivors who have unstable lives and are fearful of authority, it’s more approachable to do a phone or Zoom call than travel by subway and show up in person,” said Veronica Ades, director of the Empower Center.  “I think it facilitated enrollment for these highly vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations. Though on the downside, it was harder to ask about trauma which can sometimes be relevant to their care,” she added.

Stopping rape has proven to be a significant challenge, said a sex crimes prosecutor in the New York City District Attorney’s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I’m not sure we fully understand what motivates people to commit crimes of sexual violence so figuring out how to stop them is a very difficult thing.”

“We’ve tried to emphasize the importance of bystander awareness and training at college campuses to encourage a greater willingness on the part of men to stand up and stop offenders,” said the prosecutor.

Miles believes investing in more rape crisis centers and prevention initiatives would help decrease the number of sexual assaults in New York City. This includes targeting people at younger ages to have conversations about sexual violence and harmful social norms, she said.

Fernandez wants every survivor who comes to an emergency room to have a volunteer advocate and a sexual assault forensic examiner, she said. “They’re trained on how to identify and look for and document possible injuries that would not necessarily be obvious to the naked eye or someone, you know, who has not had this training.”