Why Demanding That Rape Victims Report Assault Isn’t Helpful
I cannot say that you should never report being sexually assaulted. That is a personal decision, and a choice that I don’t think should be taken away from you. Ever. But if you look at the likelihood of getting justice, at the risks associated with the process, and you decide that you cannot report what happened? I completely understand.
When women discuss how they didn’t report their sexual assault, they are often subjected to shame and chastised for “not stopping him before he can do it again,” forcing them to defend their decision. But we forget one of the reasons why this choice is so common; why 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police.
As gut-wrenching as it is to think about, sometimes reporting sexual assault won’t bring you any justice.
This isn’t just about sentences handed down to people like Brock Turner (who was recently released after spending just three months in jail), Jonathan Ryan Davis, Stacey Dean Rambold, David Becker, Daniel Drill-Mellum, and Austin Wilkerson. This isn’t just about how rare prosecution is, and how infrequently offenders who are prosecuted and convicted face any substantial jail time or really face any consequences that they cannot sidestep in a few years on appeal. And this isn’t just about the ways that gender and race and class can confer privilege on some and strip it from others.
This is about the process of reporting that ensures victims will suffer on their way to justice probably not being served. It’s about the way that victims’ attire, sobriety, associations, sexual history, and personality go on trial before there ever even is a trial. About rape kits that go unprocessed for years, about how we focus on preserving the rapist’s future at the expense of the victim, and about the ways in which we structure preying on women as a sport that heterosexual men should all be willing to play.
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There’s a sound argument to be made that mandatory minimums and longer prison sentences for sexual abusers won’t fix the problem, and that prison rape statistics are proof that jail isn’t a solution to the problem. These arguments are rooted in solid research, and I am uninterested in fostering a system that won’t fix the problem, only create new ones.
However, as I look at victims of assault, I think about the ways that those who do report what happened may regret it because they are mistreated by police and prosecutors and may even face retaliation from those who are supposed to protect them. I think about how the reporting process is onerous and traumatic at best, and at worst, how victims run the risk of being victimized again.
Let us say that you are assaulted while sober, and that your assailant is not a friend, classmate, or well-known athlete. That you were wearing skinny jeans when you were attacked. A jury might decide that rape is impossible because you must have helped your assailant get those pants off. Your assailant wasn’t armed? The question becomes why you didn’t fight back, even if your assailant is much larger and stronger than you and needs no weapon other than their body. Or maybe a judge simply decides that they don’t want to ruin your attacker’s life, so they give them a lighter sentence.
Or let’s say you do know your attacker, and you have a prior relationship with them. A judge might decide that you can’t have been raped because the two of you have had consensual sex in the past. And that assumes the case even gets to a judge. Because we don’t as a society understand basic concepts of consent, a DA might decline to ever press charges, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Most victims are imperfect victims in some way. Whether they wore a short dress, had a lot of male friends, or went to the “wrong party,” we have made much of reporting without discussing how hard reporting can be on the victim. We skim right over what it means to report and then realize you aren’t safe in the small town where you live, where your assailant not only knows you, but where you also have no support. We don’t talk about the process of obtaining a rape kit, or the likelihood of being charged for the cost of an invasive physical exam that occurs immediately after you have been abused physically. We don’t talk about what trauma does to memory, or how many victims are penalized for being “unreliable” as though dissociation and PTSD aren’t factors.
We make so much of reporting, as though it is a talisman against rape continuing to happen, but we know that it doesn’t stop assaults. So the best choice any victim can make is the one that they can live with — because in the end, we as a society have failed to protect them, they have every right to protect themselves.
The only real solution to the insidious problem of rape injustice starts and ends with our culture. So while we attempt to un-teach the attitudes that make rape so common, let us all practice more compassion and concern for the victims, and be less judgmental of the decisions that they make after being traumatized. Let us think about ways to stop perpetuating the cultural narratives that normalize rape. Let us start talking about what constitutes sexual assault, about informed enthusiastic consent, and about paying attention to the non-verbal clues of potential sexual partners.
Sex offender counseling after conviction can help stop offenders from repeating their crimes, but focusing on preventing rape is going to be far more effective than punishing it. There’s nothing realistic about the idea that victims can avoid being assaulted by staying sober, dressing a certain way, or having a crystal ball to know if someone is dangerous.
The only factor that determines whether a victim is assaulted is the offender’s decision to assault.