(Trigger Warning: Discussion of rape and rape culture)
A great number of people believe that reporting rape is the best way to fight rape culture.
And I understand why many people would think that way. The logic goes that if more survivors reported rape, more rapists would be convicted, and therefore be prevented from raping in the future.
It’s actually not that simple.
While I fully support the decision of survivors who choose to report their rape, we have to challenge the dangerous idea that survivors have a responsibility to report their rape.
Anti-rape campaigns often pressure survivors to speak out about their experiences. Some anti-rape campaigns insinuate that a victim’s silence is their complicity with rape culture.
But let’s look at some of the reasons why shaming people into reporting their rape is counter-productive.
1. There Are Many Valid Reasons Why Someone Wouldn’t Report Their Rape
There are plenty of reasons why people don’t report their rape.
Perhaps they have to be financially dependent on their rapist. Perhaps their rapist threatened to hurt them or their loved ones if they reported their rape. Perhaps they feel that nobody would believe them – or worse, that people will blame them for their own assault.
Many survivors are made even more vulnerable when they occupy marginalized identities.
I’ve met many people who have been wary of reporting crimes because they’re trans and were afraid that the police would further traumatize them by misgendering them. Others have had rapists who threatened to have them deported if they reported their rape. Some are too afraid to approach the police because law enforcement has been violent and disrespectful to them in the past.
Also, let’s not forget that the police themselves are capable of sexually abusing people. Sex workers are especially likely to experience sexual abuse by the police. In these cases, it’s perfectly understandable why people wouldn’t want to report their trauma to the police.
Some survivors are also too scared or traumatized to bring themselves to report the rape.
We need to recognize that there are many reasons why people don’t report their rape. Often, people assume that survivors who don’t report are lying and haven’t actually been sexually assaulted. Having this attitude makes survivors feel unsupported and fails to understand how rape culture affects survivors.
Instead of shaming survivors into reporting their rape, we should challenge the various societal barriers that prevent survivors from reporting. This will enable us to better tackle rape culture and offer adequate support to survivors.
2. Prioritizing Prevention Over Supporting Survivors Is an Extension of Rape Culture
I often worry about anti-rape campaigns putting so much emphasis on preventing rape that they forget to prioritize supporting survivors.
Sometimes anti-rape campaigns use explicit visual imagery without employing trigger warnings. In this case, they’re more concerned with creating a shocking impression than with taking care of survivors, who could be triggered by the imagery.
Sometimes anti-rape campaigns refer to rape as “having your humanity stolen.” This phrase insinuates that those who’ve experienced rape are not human; it inadvertently dehumanizes us. Some anti-rape campaigns also appropriate survivors’ stories and use them as “inspiration porn.”
Sometimes anti-rape campaigns do an excellent job at raising awareness, but do so at the cost of a survivor’s well being. When I raise this concern, I’m often told that prevention is better than cure – which is really a hurtful attitude to have.
Firstly, having a “prevention is better than cure” attitude to rape equates rape to a disease. When rape is referred to as something “sick,” “disgusting,” or “gross,” it can inadvertently make survivors feel sick, disgusting, and gross.
Secondly, insinuating that rape prevention is more important than survivors’ feelings and well being isn’t okay. It means you value people who haven’t been raped more than people who have.
Many survivors feel unwanted and worthless after having been raped. It’s the patriarchy – and rape culture itself – that disposes of survivors in this way. And when so-called “anti-rape activists” simply dispose of and ignore survivors after their rape, we’re perpetuating that harmful idea.
If anti-rape campaigns don’t emphasize the fact that survivors are still valuable, worthy, important human beings, who will?
The fact of the matter is that we can focus on preventing rape without harming rape survivors. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
In order to tackle rape culture, we should be concerned with how survivors will be affected by anti-rape campaigns.
3. It’s Not a Survivor’s Responsibility to Prevent Their Rapist from Raping in the Future
You might often come across the idea that survivors should report their rape in order to prevent their rapist from assaulting others.
This attitude may seem really well-intentioned – after all, we’re trying to prevent people from going through traumatic experience. But if we think critically about it, we’ll see that this attitude is pretty harmful.
When we use this phrase, we’re implying that it’s a survivor’s responsibility to prevent rape. In that sense, this is a form of victim-blaming.
As a rape victim, one of the most traumatic things I’ve had to deal with was the idea that I enabled my rapist to rape others. It was bad enough feeling like I was to blame for my own rape – feeling like I caused others trauma was psychological torture.
But at the end of the day, it wasn’t my responsibility to prevent my own rape or the rape of others. It was the responsibility of my rapist not to rape.
Aside from that, it’s simply impractical to think that reporting rape stops rapists from assaulting in the future.
We know that very few reports of rape result in the rapist being convicted – sometimes as little as 3%. Insinuating that rape survivors should report in order to have their rapists convicted ignores the harsh reality – that the so-called “justice system” is inadequate at protecting society from rapists.
If we want to increase conviction rates, we should start by tackling police brutality. We should tackle the rape myths perpetuated by the police and other government entities. We should tackle college and university administrators that ignore and silence victims of sexual assault.
We should not put the onus on survivors to increase conviction rates when there are so many other things preventing rapists from being held accountable for their actions.
4. The Prison System Perpetuates Rape Culture Itself
Even if rapists were convicted more often, I highly doubt that it would end rape culture. This is because the oppressive prison system itself is a reflection of rape culture.
As Sara Alcid wrote:
“How can a system of violence and racism be the answer to sexual violence?
“It can’t be — and that’s why the movement to end rape culture must reconcile itself with the reality of the prison system.”
And on top of all that, prison rape is often joked about.
Let me be clear: I’m definitely not saying that rapists shouldn’t be sent to jail. The prison system is currently one of the only ways we have of dealing with rapists. But we shouldn’t stop looking for better solutions, and we certainly shouldn’t overlook the many ways in which incarceration contributes to rape culture.
Demanding that rape survivors report their trauma ignores the reality that reporting rape isn’t a great or sure solution to eradicating rape.
Instead of focusing on reporting – so much so that we hurt survivors – we should tackle the various institutions and attitudes that allow rape culture to thrive.
5. We Should Support Survivors in Making Their Own Choices About Their Own Experiences
Everybody heals differently, and there is no perfect path to dealing with trauma. People need to heal at their own pace in their own way.
Rape is an awful experience in which a person’s bodily autonomy is ignored and violated. It’s an act in which someone isn’t allowed to control what happens to their body.
For this reason, it’s vital that a survivor has control over their own healing process.
We need to accept the fact that the survivor themself is best equipped to make decisions about their own healing and how to deal with their own trauma. Instead of shaming survivors into reporting – which might not bear any positive outcome at all – we need to support the decision of the survivor, whether they want to report their rape or not.
Telling rape survivors that they have to report their rape might seem well-intended, but if we think about it critically, we’ll begin to understand how it’s a counter-productive, dangerous extension of rape culture.
It’s rape culture that tells us that victims are responsible for their own rapes. It’s rape culture that treats people as disposable after they experience sexual assault. It’s rape culture that is insensitive to the needs of survivors, that justifies sexual assault in the prison system, and that disrespects our autonomy.
If we want to fight rape culture, we have to challenge these harmful ideas instead of simply repackaging it as anti-rape activism.
Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She is a South African feminist currently studying towards a Bachelors of Social Science degree majoring in English Language and Literature and Gender Studies at the University of Cape Town. She has been featured as a guest writer on websites such as Women24 and Foxy Box, while also writing for her personal blog. In her spare time, she tweets excessively @sianfergs, reads about current affairs, and spends time with her gorgeous group of friends. Read her articles here.
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