A small Minnesota town grapples with the fallout from an all too common crime.
Little is heard on the streets of Halstad, Minn., on a typical weekday. Residents quietly go about their business, traveling to the town’s humble main street to run errands at the local hardware store, pausing only to wave to fellow community members.
Yet in the midst of this quiet Minnesota life, there are loud secrets.
In mid-May, Halstad, with a population of 536, became the center of scandal when Steve Sortland, the town’s two-term mayor, was charged with raping a woman living in his district.
In this case, the victim is accusing the most powerful man in town, who serves as the chief of the executive branch and has the power to appoint department heads and veto any decision made by the elected city council.
While the woman’s identity is protected as a victim of a violent crime, it’s no secret to the people of Halstad. There, most people have made up their minds. Those close to the mayor accuse the victim of carrying out a smear campaign.
Those who favor the victim regard her as a brave woman who had the courage to call out an influential and powerful leader.
For those who have rushed to judgment, not even the verdict is likely to change their minds.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, more than 200,000 victims of rape step forward every year. Yet that is nowhere near the actual number of times the crime is committed. Only about half of victims step forward to press charges, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Despite the difficulties that keep rape victims from stepping forward, headlines this year have shown they still carry the burden. Even politicians at the national level have failed to acknowledge the rape epidemic in America, with former Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri choosing instead to differentiate between “legitimate” rape and, supposedly, “illegitimate” rape.
The case in Halstad represents the struggle victims often go through in the process of seeking justice.
Jumping to conclusions
Blocks away from Halstad’s central business district, two women visited in a front yard. In an interview with Mint Press, the women, who wished to remain anonymous given the sensitive nature of the issue, said everyone in town knew of the rape charges — and everyone had their own take on the situation.
“I watched the coverage of it from the day it happened up until now,” one woman said. “It’s hard to say… They say that there are three allegations, but you don’t know.”
Both women agreed that Sortland’s reputation in the community has been positive. He was a likeable guy who, according to local residents, had been good for the community’s leadership team. They claimed the allegations of rape were “hard to believe.”
In terms of the community’s judgment of the issue, the women said many have already made up their minds. Through the eyes of Halstad residents, someone is lying.
“I think it (the community) is split,” one woman said. “I think that theres a group that says, ‘yes,’ and there’s a group that says, ‘no.’ But that is typical in any small town.”
Others approached by Mint Press News refused to comment on the issue, citing the sensitivity of the topic.
A courthouse look at the crime
According to the criminal complaint, the victim did not initially release the name of her assailant to law enforcement, claiming that “she did not want to tell who did this because she is concerned no one is going to believe her.”
She also expressed concern over her children’s safety, as she worried they would become the victims of retaliation.
Prior to disclosing his name, the victim told law enforcement that the perpetrator was her boyfriend. After engaging in consensual sex, the victim claims Sortland forcefully anally raped her, while at the same time hitting her in the genital area.
Law enforcement officials took the victim to the hospital, where photos of her injuries were taken. A rectal exam indicated there was evidence of tearing and bleeding, representing signs of trauma.
Eventually, the victim reported the name of her alleged assailant. And on May 27, Sortland was arrested on his way back into town after a long Memorial Day weekend away. When apprehended, Sortland said all sexual activity with the victim was consensual.
He was released on bail, and while difficult to track down due to an unlisted address, he remains the acting mayor of Halstad.
Courage in standing up
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 54 percent of women do not pursue legal cases against their perpetrator.
There’s a reason for that.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, victims identified four reasons for not pressing charges against rapists. These factors included feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment, along with concerns that they would not be believed.
Of those who do report their crimes, an average 12 out of 46 rape reports will result in arrest. In 97 percent of cases that do go to trial, the perpetrator does not see jail time.
Even victims who subject themselves to medically invasive tests to provide evidence of their rape aren’t always believed — despite medical exams that can provide evidence that backs up their allegations.
Just this month, a Washington woman sued police and city officials, the same people who accused her in 2008 of lying about being a victim of rape. As it turns out, the man she accused of raping her was sentenced to 300 years in prison in 2011 after it was discovered he was a serial rapist.
Marc O’Leary was sentenced by a Colorado district judge after he pleaded guilty to stalking women, breaking into their homes as they slept and raping them repeatedly. Afterwards, he would force them to clean themselves in the shower in an attempt to rid them of evidence.
O’Leary pleaded guilty to 28 counts of sexual assault, one of which involved the Washington victim who no one believed.
According to the Courthouse News Service, the victim was pressured by investigators to recant her allegations, even after physical evidence indicated she had, indeed, been raped.
The scenario of the Seattle rape victim isn’t considered rare among those who work in the field of sexual assault prevention and rehabilitation.
In 2012, a Pennsylvania police department paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who had been charged with lying about a reported rape. The woman had filed a report that she had been raped and robbed while working at a convenience store.
According to a report by Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV, the woman lost her job and spent five days in jail. After the man confessed to the crime, the woman was released.
“Almost immediately, they began accusing (the victim) of making up the whole incident in order to take the money herself,” her attorney, David Weicht told the news station when the lawsuit began in 2006.
What is considered rape now would not have been recognized legally in the 1970s in some states, as women were burdened with proving that they were threatened with force or violence. Other states did not recognize rape if the victim were married to the assailant. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, it wasn’t until the late ‘70s that the first case of marital rape was prosecuted.
Slowly, through what was considered the rape reform movement, elected officials began to repeal laws that had been stacked against victims. New laws provided protection for victims and prevented them from being questioned about their sexual history by police.
“This is one of those moments where we can see the ways misogyny is built into the structure of our systems,” sexual prevention educator Jamie Utt said in a March interview with Mint Press News. “It wasn’t until probably the 1970s, thanks to the work of concerted feminists, that people even started recognizing that rape was even happening in the U.S.”
And while the nation is moving forward, there’s often still a knee-jerk reaction against the victim, with allegations like those in Halstad that, before all else, question the woman’s reputation and integrity.
This is seen even from those males in power on the national and state level. In 2008, Tennessee state Sen. Doug Henry dismissed the idea that rape could be committed against a woman by a man whom she shared relations with.
“Rape, ladies and gentlemen, is not today what rape was. Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman, against her will, by some party not her spouse. Today it’s simply, ‘Let’s don’t go forward with this act,’” he said in an address to colleagues.
Henry represents the very mentality that causes 56 percent of rape victims from standing up against their perpetrator for a violent crime committed against them.