04/06/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, and I'd like to honor the importance of this month by discussing a form of sexual assault that is a critical issue still affecting women and girls -- acquaintance rape and its lack of prosecution.

While many of us tend to think of "stranger danger" and dark alleys when we think of rape, the reality is that acquaintance rapes account for over 70 percent of all sexual assaults. The nature of acquaintance rape and society's reaction to it often present further problems for victims beyond coping with what happened to them.

Acquaintance rapes are the least frequently reported type of sexual assault and the hardest to prosecute. Often the perpetrator of the assault claims the sexual contact was consensual, and there are usually no witnesses. The lack of "hard" evidence in acquaintance rape allegations results in many cases being thrown out by law enforcement agencies or prosecutors.

Recently, the Chicago Justice Project published a report that shows the Chicago Police Department categorized 17 percent of sexual assault allegations between 2000-2009 as "unfounded," meaning they did not feel there was enough evidence to prove that an assault actually occurred. This rate is three times the national average, and most of these cases were instances of acquaintance rape.

In addition to the issues with law enforcement, survivors of acquaintance rape suffer the same depression, grief and trauma as those who did not know their attackers. Many of us are familiar with the recent news story about Elizabeth Seeberg, who reported being sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player and died nine days later from an overdose of prescription medication. In this case, the university allowed the student athlete to continue playing football despite the allegations against him and did not interview him until 14 days after the incident was reported. The case was ultimately dismissed because of Elizabeth's death.

In spite of many public awareness campaigns over the last 20 years, acquaintance rape remains an issue across the country and in Illinois. In a survey of more than 6,000 students at 32 colleges and universities in the U.S., data showed that one in four women had been victims of rape or attempted rape and 84 percent of victims knew their attacker. Yet only five percent had reported it to the police. Women and girls will continue to be reluctant to come forward if these cases are not treated as a priority by law enforcement.

These examples and statistics underscore the critical importance of believing victims of acquaintance rape. Most victims of sexual assault are asked to recount the details of their assault several times -- to medical staff, law enforcement officials, state's attorneys, and others -- and each time can feel like reliving the assault all over again. The only way we can truly support victims of acquaintance rape is if we advocate for school and law enforcement officials to believe them. Otherwise, perpetrators of this type of sexual assault will never have to face consequences for their actions, and they will be more likely to assault in the same way again. And victims will continue to either remain silent or discover that their word is not enough to prove what happened to them. Neither is right.

So this Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let's all commit to being advocates for victims of sexual assault in any form. Whether it's challenging our criminal justice system or simply telling a friend who confides in us, let's all rally around this important message: "I believe you."