Like so many of us, sexual assault is an issue that hits me close to home.
Between the experiences of those in my inner circles, and the near inevitable student rape revelation that follows my college class on sexual assault, I’ve lost count of how many times this issue has come up in both my personal and professional lives.
But one thing I haven’t lost count of is just how many of those assaults I know were reported to the police. That number? A grand total of one.
And this lack of reporting is not just an anomaly found in my world. Plenty of people from all walks of life choose not to go to the authorities about sexual assault.
In fact, according to the 2012 United States Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. And an even higher rate was found by a British government study, which put their number between 75 and 95%.
Yet there is still a common belief that if someone is “really” raped, then the survivor would report the assault to the authorities.
That simply isn’t the case.
There are, in fact, plenty of reasons people don’t (or can’t) involve the police, none of which have anything to do with whether or not a rape actually happened.
Here are eight barriers that may keep a survivor from reporting.
1. The ‘Perfect’ (Or ‘Real’) Victim Narrative
In the article “The Role of Real Rape and Real Victim Stereotypes in the Police Reporting Practices of Sexually Assaulted Women,” the authors argue that perception of a legitimate victim by police is typically “a morally upright White woman who is physically injured while resisting.”
So then who isn’t a “real” victim?
Their list is vast and includes people of color, previous rape survivors, those with mental health difficulties, people who had been drinking, sex workers, lesbians, trans folk, anyone not upper or middle class, people with disabilities, homeless people, and – of course – all men.
People who fit into any of these categories are either not seen as credible sources of information by law enforcement, or they are simply not seen as “rapeable.”
As a result, their stories are often doubted.
The result is a situation where someone who falls outside of a narrow victim definition is often discouraged from reporting.
2. The Myth of the Lie
Sexual assault survivors often fear that if they report a rape, they will not be believed.
Male survivors are well aware that there is a prevalent belief than men simply don’t get raped, especially not cishet men – and especially not by women.
A lot of those beliefs stem from the idea that men always want sex anyhow and that they should be physically strong enough to fight off an unwanted sexual encounter.
But men are, indeed, assaulted.
In fact, it’s estimated that 10% of rape survivors are male. And when we look at the prison population, a group for whom reporting assaults is probably one of the most difficult, the percent of male victims is far greater (though there is debate on what those numbers actually are).
Female survivors, on the other hand, are aware that reporting rapes runs them the risk of being painted as malicious liars or regretful sluts.
These fears are fueled by media coverage of situations where a woman has accused a man of rape, but for a variety of reasons, a conviction doesn’t follow.
In such cases, there is never a discussion of the fact that:
a) Such incidents are rare. The United States Justice Department reports that false rape accusations “are estimated to occur at the low rate of two percent – similar to the rate of false accusations for other violent crimes,” and
b) A lot of these may be cases where a survivor is not making up a rape claim, but rather realizes that the grueling natures of taking a rapist to court is simply too much to bear and decides to drop the charges.
In other situations, police or prosecutors simply determine there isn’t strong enough evidence to move forward with criminal proceedings.
Yet the idea of the lie is still given credence.
In one recent case, a Florida cop who was acquitted of sexual battery charges, but who still ended up losing his job, responded by suing the woman who filed the complaint. His claim? She “conspired with a friend to fabricate the sexual battery allegations.” These are charges the survivor’s mother has called “a slap in the face to all victims.”
3. The Known Assailant
Far from being an anomaly, sexual assault by a non-stranger is incredibly common.
According to the National Institute of Justice:
“Among victims ages 18 to 29, two-thirds had a prior relationship with the offender…6 in 10 rape or sexual assault victims said that they were assaulted by an intimate partner, relative, friend, or acquaintance. [Among] college women…9 out of 10 victims knew the person who sexually victimized them. One research project found that 34 percent of women surveyed were victims of sexual coercion by a husband or intimate partner in their lifetime.”
Yet while reporting sexual assault to the police is never easy, reporting a sexual assault when the assailant is a friend, a partner, a relative, or even a casual acquaintance, can be that much harder.
It’s not hard to understand why.
For example, when I recently asked a group of teens why they think some people don’t report known rapists, one girl said, “Well, if it’s someone who’s part of your group, then all those people will hate you and you’d lose all your friends.”
Another said, “Maybe you’d be scared of retaliation.”
A boy added, “You might not want the person to get arrested.” His friend suggested, “Maybe they’ll blackmail you.”
Additional deterrents for teens? The fear of being known as a slut, tattletale, social climber, liar, or baby.
And in other situations, worry over the impact on one’s family, employment, or housing can be equally strong barriers to reporting.
4. Victim Blaming
Over 25 years ago, in the movie The Accused, Jodie Foster portrayed a rape survivor whose substance use and sex life were used as excuses not to convict her attackers.
That movie brought a conversation about victim blaming to mainstream America, and since then, a few important have things happened. One big one was the introduction of a federal rape shield law.
Nevertheless, victim blaming remains prevalent.
If it isn’t Internet trolls taunting the survivors in Steubenville or Maryville, it’s the New York Times reporting on the gang rape of an 11-year-old Texas child by canvassing her neighbors, and then writing that “[t] hey said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”
Victim blaming, often sold as “common sense” safety tips (don’t wear this, go there, drink that) is so run-of-the-mill that many people have simply internalized these notions.
And even if they don’t personally believe them, survivors know that they authorities still might.
5. Campus Mishandlings of Rape
Traditionally, many colleges have discouraged students from reporting sexual assaults to the police by claiming that they’ll handle the situation internally.
As Alexandra Brodsky wrote in the Guardian, “When someone attempted to rape me my freshman year, I asked my college, Yale University, for help, but instead, I was basically advised to keep quiet. I shouldn’t formally report the assault, I was told.”
Only recently (and only because activists and survivors made the issue public) have colleges begun to address this problem.
And in a big move, California just passed what is being called an affirmative consent law, which would require college students is to obtain “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” that is “ongoing throughout a sexual activity.”
But for many students, the effects of these changes have yet to be felt.
According to the CDC, 43% of sexual assault survivors are under the age of 18.
It is estimated that of those assaults, a significant number are committed by family members or other non-strangers.
Generally, if children tell anyone (and many do not disclose out of fear, shame, guilt, or a sense of family loyalty), it sure isn’t going to be the police.
Being underage in our society often means you have very little autonomy when it comes to your own body. We know this is true in regards to reproductive health. But it can also be the case with sexual assault where the choice to report is typically in the hands of parents and guardians.
Yet many families choose not to go this route.
This was highlighted by a study of mothers’ responses to disclosures of intrafamilial sexual assault. The researchers found that while the vast majority of the mothers believed their children, almost half did not address the issue with authorities.
As the authors write, “It is a long jump from belief and support to actually taking action to protect the abused child, especially if the perpetrator is the mother’s partner.”
7. People Don’t Always Call What Happened to Them Rape
In the groundbreaking 1988 book I Never Called It Rape, author Robin Warshaw reported that 27% of women whose sexual assault met the definition of rape did not use that word to describe their experiences.
And this is a phenomenon that is still seen today.
As Dr. Heidi Resnick of the The National Crime Survivors Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina explains:
“One of the biggest barriers [to reporting] may be lack of acknowledgement or understanding that an incident is a sexual assault. There still appear to be stereotypic views of what defines sexual assault and unwanted sexual incidents that would meet legal definitions of rape.”
Survivors may blame themselves for getting into risky situations. Or they believe that a rape has to involve physical force, or must be committed by a stranger, or can’t happen between people who have had consensual sex before, or think that it doesn’t count if a survivor has been drinking.
Plus, some people simply don’t want to label themselves as rape victims.
8. Distrust of Law Enforcement and the Legal System
Many communities – particularly those made up of marginalized groups – have (rightfully) tense relationships with the police. This tension can make the decision to report a sexual assault a particularly complicated one.
And for those who are either themselves undocumented, or who have families of mixed status, the answer to the question of whether or not to report a sexual assault to the police is often obvious.
That was a big part of the reason a college freshman I taught a few years back couldn’t imagine going to police to report that her uncle had been raping her. The uncle owned the house her family lived in. They didn’t pay rent, and some members were undocumented. The man warned my student that if she told anyone about the assaults, he would kick the family out and turn them in to the INS.
Eventually, my student told her parents and she moved in with an aunt. But the idea of telling the police was simply never on the table.
My student’s experience is just one example of how in communities that are targeted by police, individuals can become alienated from the entire legal system. As a result, many simply cannot view law enforcement as anything other than a hostile threat, let alone as something that can be their advocate.
What Can We Do?
First off, it is crucial to allow survivors to make their own choices and to understand the valid reasons many have for choosing not to report.
Here’s where we go from there:
1. Form Strong Networks and Communities
In 2013, Dr. Resnick and colleagues published a paper called “Does Encouragement by Others Increase Rape Reporting?”
What it found was that that people who have social support are more likely to report assaults than are those who are isolated and don’t have anyone to confide in.
2. Don’t Make Sexual Assault Survivors Do All the Work
If you think changes are needed, get out there and make the change.
Lobby for stronger laws, practice affirmative consent for sex in your own life, become an anti-rape activist.
Survivors don’t have a duty to report their rapes to make the world safer. Allies fighting rape culture are the ones who should be working on that.
3. Encourage Police Departments to Adopt Survivor-Driven Programs
One example of this is the You Have Options program in Ashland, Oregon, which allows survivors to choose how much to share with police.
Survivors are not required to detail their assaults or identify the perpetrator. Filing a report or pursuing an investigation are the survivor’s decisions.
Rape Is Just Different
Rape is the only crime where the same person can be told that not only was the assault their own fault, but also that the crime itself probably never even happened.
Add in victim blaming, stereotypes about rape survivors, low conviction rates for rapists, and the fact that law enforcement can be a really a complicated institution that some people simply need to avoid, and it really isn’t surprising that so many people find it so hard to report this crime.
Ellen Kate is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. Originally from Canada, she is a health educator (and mom) based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes, and runs About.com’s LGBT Teens website. Find more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.
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