HSU sexual assault survivor on crusade

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Norwegian transfer student Rigmor Angel Soerensen, who won a sexual assault conviction Aug. 3 against another Humboldt State student, urges women everywhere to report their assailants and pursue legal redress.

Rigmor Angel Soerensen

Rigmor Angel Soerensen

In an exclusive interview with the Union, Soerensen said Friday that government, law enforcement and the judicial system will provide the necessary funding and support resources only if high numbers of women go public and demand justice.

An HSU journalism major who speaks fluent English, Soerensen intends to write articles in the campus newspaper about the frequency of sexual assault and how survivors can deal with it and find therapeutic and legal relief. While recovering since the November attack, she has been researching rape and sexual assault crimes, with plans to write an autobiography about what happened to her. She is also at work on a documentary video about the subject. She says these undertakings are now her calling.

Spring semester, Soerensen was a member of a six-student campus survivor group and took a class that explored the issue of domestic violence.

Dissatisfied with the survivor group – the assaults suffered by others were multiple years old while Soerensen’s was fresh – she sought help elsewhere. “It was hard finding a therapist” in Humboldt, she said.

Each survivor’s story is very different, the Norwegian student has learned, although most of the time the perpetrator is someone familiar, including boyfriends, partners and spouses.

One young woman she got to know “was assaulted several times while she was still in the relationship. People say, ‘Why don’t you run?’ But if you’re the victim and you run, he may do something more crazy.”    

Setting an example for other women to come forward, Soerensen communicates regularly on her Facebook page, sharing the outcome of her legal action and sparing no realism about how hard the fight for justice is. She cites an alarming statistic: an astounding 994 out of 1,000 rape and sexual assault criminals go free.   

“What is hard is that we still have a victim-blaming culture, even as we’re trying to fight against it,” Soerensen laments. “Speaking up is the only way to challenge it.”

The hardest part of seeking justice is reliving the memory of the trauma over and over again, she said in the interview.

Redress is inseparable from the emotional anguish of the assault and from the rigors and defects of the legal system, said Soerensen, 21. Yet she believes every woman who endures those tribulations lends strength and motivation to other girls and women who are undecided about coming forward.

Although convinced that more women must seek justice if the high rate of failed prosecutions is to be curtailed, Soerensen is entirely empathetic with survivors who elect to remain silent. “A lot of people choose not to report because they know it takes a long time. After being mentally and sometimes physically ‘killed’ you don’t want to put yourself out for more harm, ’cause you’re already destroyed and tired.”          

Based on White House findings and research by other institutions, Soerensen says there is a consensus that rape and other sex crimes afflict 20 to 25 percent of college-age women. Sexual abuse of men is occurring more frequently too, she has learned.

Other survivors have told her that sexual crimes and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand. One of them directed Soerensen’s attention to the warning signs. A husband and wife were living in New York City enjoying “very good jobs” and suddenly the husband wanted to move. The change isolated this woman from her immediate family and shortly thereafter her husband suddenly bought two guns.

Commenting on this story, Soerensen noted “There’s a buildup” to a domestic crisis. “But if you don’t know the red flags, you don’t see them. I had a lot of red flags too, in my short time [with her assailant], but I didn’t see them there and then.”             

Her convicted perpetrator, Raul Sierra IV, 25 when he was arrested last January, was charged with acquaintance rape “by use of drugs” in an encounter early last November in Soerensen’s bedroom in HSU’s Trinity residence hall. An hours-long series of late night drinking games preceded the assault. The two met in October via dating app Tinder.

Under a plea agreement, Sierra was sentenced to three years’ probation, with an 18-month deferred entry of judgment for false imprisonment by violence. He pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to a misdemeanor assault charge (Union online, Aug. 3).

Sierra must undergo 12 hours of alcohol, sex and consent counseling and serve 50 hours of community service in the San Diego area, where he now resides. He was a junior at HSU, as was Soerensen.

After the judge pronounced sentence last week, she told the court, “No one deserves to go through this. No one will ever know how it feels – feeling like you got killed, while your body is still alive, while your killer is out there. He has ruined me in many ways, and I live everyday with PTSD, anxiety and depression. But I am not going to make myself lose over him. For me he will always be a criminal, and I will come out of this stronger. My goal is to use my experience to help other victims, and to become an attorney like [Deputy District Attorney] Brie [Bennett] and to one day fight people like him.”

In retrospect, Soerensen realized that her assailant had inveigled her with calculated kindness. He led her to believe he was “normal” because he made no upfront overture for a hookup, which is the common currency on Tinder.

“Looking back, maybe he was too kind. Disarming me emotionally,” she reflected.

At times he touched her hands and arms while they were in public, which she rebuffed with body language and physical retreat. “He was playing with me,” she said. Those gestures were red flags too, when she recalled them in retrospect.

“The weirdest thing was that he brought so much alcohol” the night in early November when he attacked her. She said Sierra arrived at her dorm with 48 cans of beer and a bottle of vodka. “We [she and her four roommates] didn’t ask for that and it’s not normal. We’re college students and we usually don’t have enough money” for large amounts of liquor.

“We told him to bring enough alcohol for himself, because we know how it is, not being rich. I think that’s the mind of a perpetrator. Bringing so much alcohol, he probably had a goal from the time I started replying to his messages on this app. He kind of had me hooked, you know? I continued to answer and then he started planning. That’s how I feel.”

Soerensen’s continuing concern, now that Sierra is free and back in the big city, is that he may be tempted to rape again. He posted $100,000 bail when he was arrested in January and fled Arcata immediately.

Soerensen said she feared back then for “the security of other women in San Diego. He went right back home because this town was too small for him.

“My fear wasn’t being sexually assaulted again by Raul,” she says. By no means, however, does she believe that a scant 12 hours of alcohol, sex and consent counseling will take root.

“Think about all the people he could harm and get away with assaulting in San Diego” in the future, she warns.

Regarding reform, Soerensen believes “more victims would report if we got some federal sexual assault laws” and if the legal process were streamlined. Survivors are skeptical of going to court in part, she says, because the system is slow and log jammed, riddled with continuances and a surfeit of motions that prolong the agony.

Her experience has led her to the conclusion that U.S. colleges in general are not nearly aggressive enough in pursuing rape, date rape and sexual assault cases. Fearing bad publicity, college administrations fail to fight perpetrators. “They’re afraid of ruining their reputations,” she protests, when in fact a campus reputation for zero tolerance and vigorous punishment would lend it respect, dignity and prestige.

Soerensen praised HSU, in particular the University Police Department and Sgt. Janelle Jackson, for its handling of her case.

“HSU isn’t perfect, but I’m happy that I got raped here, compared to a bigger and more famous college. It says a lot that the school hasn’t finished their case, when the court has.

“But I don’t blame the staff working on it, because the problems are the lack of resources and number of staff HSU has dedicated to take care of sexual assaults. The school has been supportive. After I got raped, I barely attended any classes before Christmas, but I got alternative ways to work with teachers and the school to complete them.”