I wrote this as an article in my college’s newpaper during the first Sexual Assault Awareness Month that I bore the titles “victim” and “survivor” – the year 2015. Content notes apply for descriptions of sexual assault and victim blaming.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Almost everyone knows someone who has been assaulted, or has experienced it personally. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men is raped throughout their lifetimes (and statistics for LGBTQIA populations indicate even higher rates, as well as disabled populations).
We live in a rape culture, which can be described as a hostile environment that encourages sexual violence and discourages survivors from speaking up. A few examples are phrases like “I got raped by that test” or rape jokes (which are anything but funny); romance movies that teach us that the way to “win” a girl is to unrelentingly chase her down; disbelief than men can be raped, too; lessons about rape being focused on how to avoid being raped, rather than teaching people not to rape in the first place; and the idea that rape only happens in a back alley by a stranger, not possibly in committed relationships or by friends – and that, if someone’s story is different, they were “asking for it” through their actions or outfit. We are all terrified of sexual violence happening to us, so we separate ourselves from the possibility that it could by saying, “I would never wear such a provocative outfit/drink that much/hang out with a questionable person like that.”
What may be the most insidious aspect of rape culture is the re-traumatization that survivors can experience when they look to the “justice” system for help and are not taken seriously. Rape culture pervades police stations. According to the Rape, Incest, and Abuse National Network (RAINN), from every 100 rapes, only 32 are reported to the police, resulting in only 7 arrests, 2 felony convictions, and 2 rapists spending more than a day in jail. Yes, 2 out of 100. If you are tempted to say that the problem lies with survivors themselves for not coming forward more often, think again. According to the National Institute of Justice, the most common reasons for not reporting are self-blame; desire to keep private life details private; fear of the perpetrator lashing out, especially in domestic violence situations; fear of others not believing them; and a lack of trust in the legal system.
This is my story about the mess that my assault and the legal system made of my life from July 2014-February 2015 and how we all can learn from it in order to make the world more supportive of survivors.
I was raped by a man I met at a fraternity party in Washington, D.C. while visiting an old friend. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t rape, but the next day, it was undeniable. I wanted to crawl out of my own skin.
I didn’t want to go forward at first; my senior year was just about to begin. However, due to the encouragement of friends, I went and got a rape kit done just to keep the door open if I wanted to report to the police at a later date. It was while I told my story from beginning to end that I realized that I wanted justice from the system that I had learned to trust in elementary school. I went to the station, armed with a trash bag full of evidence, and met the detective I was assigned to. With an advocate in the room, I told my testimony. My detective seemed charming and caring, assured me that he would keep me updated about every step, and left me feeling that he would relentlessly pursue the justice I deserved.
Two months passed without a word. Then came the phone call that he was done with his entire investigation and that he had passed everything off to his supervisors to make the final decision about prosecution. I hadn’t even given the police station permission to access my rape kit yet. Flustered, I asked, “Don’t you need my rape kit?” “No, I don’t think so.” “What’s your guess about whether they’ll choose to prosecute?” Without any remorse in his voice, he said, “I don’t think they will.” I knew from there that I would have to raise hell in order to be listened to. The police report’s one-sentence summary said that I had had sex, not that I had been raped. It also said I had no injuries, which I had told my detective were detailed in the rape kit. The next few months were consumed by asking him to step up and do his job.
He played hard to get, but eventually picked up the phone two months later. I had a list of notes in my hands, shaking, and told him to stop letting his biases against survivors get in the way of my shot at justice. That’s when he said, “I wrote on your police report that you had sex because you never told me you were assaulted.” He then tried to use words from my own testimony against me. Because I had never used the r-word or the s.a.-word (a common thing for someone who is beginning to cope with the fact that they have been sexually assaulted), he thought I had come to tell him about a one-night stand. After having been very calm, I yelled, “Just because I thought he was attractive doesn’t mean I gave him consent at any point, or that he ever asked. If you didn’t hear me the first time, I’m going to have to say it all again.” I was given a second chance to give my testimony. Despite ferocious efforts, the police report remained the same and he threw a stink about having to pick up my rape kit. When my case wasn’t picked up for prosecution, I wasn’t at all surprised.
In the end, the legal system did more damage to me than my rapist ever could have. The scariest thing is that my story is not at all unique. I know a lot of people with different details, but similar disheartening and dehumanizing experiences. So, let me ask the question again: Why don’t survivors report to the police more often? Because of things like this that can happen behind closed doors. I am not trying to dissuade you from reporting if something awful has happened to you; I am saying that if we are going to continue shaming survivors for not reporting, there need to be better reporting processes and more sensitivity training. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, false reports only make up 2% of all reports. It’s time that we believe our survivors so that they don’t have to go through a second trauma, and it’s time we have a society that doesn’t have environments conducive to the first trauma happening at all.
Three great things did come out of choosing to come forward, though. First, I got Crime Victims Compensation money that helped pay for my hospital visit, therapy appointments, and related expenses. I also received an advocate and a lawyer who fought tirelessly for me and constantly reminded me that what had happened to me, both that night and every time I interacted with my detective, was not okay. Second, I learned that justice comes in various forms. My case was not prosecuted, but I hope I sufficiently scared my rapist into never perpetrating such a senseless act again; that would be justice. When I get to help others cope with their own traumatic experiences because I have the kind of empathy that comes from having been down in the trenches of darkness personally, that is justice. When I walk across the graduation stage, graduating with honors and a bright future despite the obstacles I have faced, that will be justice. Third, I had the opportunity to voice my concerns and ideas for improvement about the police station I worked with to a Victims’ Specialist, who told me that I had a chance of making someone else’s experience better in the future. That was worth everything.
How do we show in everyday actions that we support and believe our survivors? I’ve written a how-to guide, but here are the sparknotes if you’ve only got a moment:
If someone reveals to you that they have been assaulted,
- Encourage them to do what is right for them and their healing, not what someone else wants them to do. Rape is a power-based crime; giving someone the power to make their own decisions about what to do next re-empowers them.
- Do not ask them for any details that they do not freely give. Do not ask who did it, and if they do reveal that person, do not say anything like, “Are you sure? John/Jane Doe is such a nice person.”
- Tell them you believe them. Thank them for trusting you. Ask them how you can best support them. They are going through an unimaginably tough experience and it is crucial for them to know that you love them and will be there for them. Let them know that you will keep their story confidential.
- Go to an event this month in your area that honors survivors. Especially if you live near or in a city, you’ll be able to find plenty of SAAM opportunities held by non-profits and local community groups.
- Watch out for your friends when you go out. Before you start partying, ask them how you can look out for each other. Do you plan to find someone to dance with? To go home with? That way you can get each other out of potentially dangerous situations.
- Fight back against rape culture in any way possible. We all benefit from safer spaces.
The reason I share my story is that I want people to know that they are not alone in this. Yes, I’m a different person from who I was in July 2014. I’m wiser about the world, but I decided a long time ago that I was not going to let the ugliness I faced that night and throughout the following months harden me. “Survivor” is a proud aspect of my identity now. I have since forgiven my rapist and detective, but that doesn’t mean the fire in my soul is ever going to burn out. I’m more passionate about seeking justice and facilitating healing for others.
If you need anything, reach out to someone you trust. Look up the resources near you. Figure out your next step. If you don’t know where to turn, I’m always happy to talk (even though I’m slow to answer emails). You are not alone.