(Disclaimer: the gendered language I use in this post is based off my own experience as well as larger trends of violence against women. Both victims and perpetrators can be, and are, any gender. In addition, the experience I am writing about is campus sexual assault, but far more sexual assault occurs in spaces outside of a college campus. This is for all survivors)
I read a lot of things about false accusations. About “overblown campus statistics”, etc. Lots of logic about how “real victims” would report their rape in a timely fashion and keep their story completely straight. I feel like people think that reporting a rape is easy when it was actually the absolute worst thing I could imagine. It was almost worse than the rape itself, although nothing could ever really get worse than that experience. But it compounded all of my trauma into the mess that I’m dealing with today.
I think that if you separate yourself from trauma and sexual assault, if you’ve never experienced it, it’s really easy to simplify it into digestible pieces. I get it. You think that it makes perfect logical sense for a rape victim to report. After all, if someone commits a crime, it’s reasonable to report them! Right?
I could start by talking about shock, but first I need to talk about how a majority of rapes are committed by a friend, partner, or acquaintance. I was lucky enough to be free of a prior relationship with my rapist, but so many rape victims are dealing with more than trying to grasp the fact that they’ve been raped. They’re also trying to wrap their heads around who did it to them. That’s an overwhelming process, one that can sometimes take years to figure out for a survivor. We grow up believing that rapists and abusers are monsters that we should be able to spot a mile away. When we think about self defense, we think about protecting ourselves from strangers; not people that we trust.
Even if a victim is able to get past their guilt and confusion about being assaulted by someone that they knew, initial shock after a rape takes a while to wear off. There was no logic that I could apply to my actions immediately after I was raped. I did default to calling someone right away, but it was a friend instead of 911. Something in my brain was telling me that I needed a doctor, but I was somehow also unaware of the fact that I was injured when asked why I needed to see one. My first instinct was that I wanted to go home because it felt safe, but that’s only one example of how someone in shock responds. I had this sudden fear that my rapist would come out running after me because he had been so overwhelmingly aggressive in private. It didn’t make sense to me (and still sometimes doesn’t) that he could switch that on and off depending who was around.
For those victims who are able to overcome both of these initial barriers, they now have to deal with either police, university officials, or other people who are in charge of taking their report. These people are generally more concerned about getting all the facts than respecting that you’ve been traumatized. That sounds fine, right? They need to do their job. Their job isn’t to hold a victim’s hand. They need the facts so they can do the investigation. The problem with that is that a victim’s traumatized brain isn’t exactly in the best shape. This is one reason why I advocate so strongly for FETI (you can read more here about that), which helps to frame interviews with traumatized persons in a way that actually allows them to fully use their brains and give all the information that they remember. However, most stories I hear from victims don’t involve much trauma-informed practice. I hear plenty of stories about frustrated police wondering why the victim isn’t cooperating well enough, or why they aren’t able to just tell the story in order. I’ve even known some victims whose cases were closed to due “lack of cooperation” or “fabrication” because they were reporting to officers that didn’t understand how people respond to trauma. I’ve even known victims who are threatened by police with an arrest if they don’t show up to court dates.
For victims who do report, evidence is important (as it should be) in the criminal system. However, plenty of victims don’t get the evidence that they need. As I would hope that anyone reading knows by now, the traumatized brain isn’t exactly thinking rationally. It’s focused on survival. If “survival” and “rape kit” don’t go together, a survivor is unlikely to get one. If clothing had DNA or other evidence on it and the survivor (rightfully) doesn’t want to look at it anymore, it’s unlikely to be thoughtfully preserved for police. The high burden of evidence is absolutely understandable in a criminal case, but due to the unique nature of sex crimes, it’s unlikely to be saved and kept properly by the victim.
Here’s where the title of my post comes in. During various investigative processes, I got asked repeatedly if I was sure that I wanted to “ruin his life”. I tried to stay as objective and kind as I possibly could, and never really dig into that question as much as it hurt. Even before anyone knew that the man who raped me was a likely sociopath with multiple victims and a consistent pattern, they should have cared that he did that to me. Once should have been enough. I remember how I knew that at any point, my behavior was far more on trial than his. He could stay silent if he wanted to, but if I wanted any justice to happen, I needed to speak with absolute consistency and center my entire life around what had happened. I still remember all of the “evidence” that was attempted to be used against me, and the disgust I felt when I found out that both my rapist and his legal team/family had been scouring my social media for evidence that I deserved what happened. I can’t even count how many survivors I talk to who were picked apart in a similar way. Those who talk about false accusations bemoan the “kangaroo court” of campus tribunals as well as the civil courts with their lower standards of evidence, but rarely do they realize that these lower burdens affect the protection of the victim as well. There are all kinds of pieces of evidence that are admissible outside of the criminal system, which puts the victim at an even bigger disadvantage. I had to sit during preparation for my campus hearings and explain screenshot by screenshot of old tweets, jokes I had made, and photos of me in clothing that the defense thought was inappropriate. It was humiliating, and the lower standard for both sides meant that I wasn’t protected from it.
After all of this, a survivor’s case might be able to go to trial. At this point, they have an incredibly long road ahead of them. Most survivors I know who are waiting for trial are in a seemingly never-ending holding pattern. They don’t feel that they can talk to anyone about what happened. Even if they have some support, they’ve likely experienced a lot of loneliness and possibly even harassment because they reported. As I’m sure a lot of you know, my personal experience was that I was slandered, harassed, and painted as a false accuser. And nearly everyone believed him. Even people close to me who believed what happened didn’t understand why I couldn’t just “let it go”.
Imagine weeks, months, years (common in civil cases) of waiting to find out whether this person will be held responsible for what they did you. In the meantime, you might be suffering from PTSD, or trying your hardest just to balance a normal life with the stress of waiting for a resolution. If the person who assaulted you was a friend or partner, you could be dealing with everyone knowing exactly who you are, having lost your legal right to anonymity. The financial cost of being raped is also high, with the average lifetime cost estimated at $110,000. I got my restitution back from my court case and aside from feeling disgusting about getting money for what happened, I was angry at how small of a reimbursement it was for simply the medical bills and a small amount of missed work. Despite this high cost to victims, they are still shamed if they decide to pursue a civil case against their perpetrator. The lifetime loss just compounds over time, and I’m not even going into the issue of childhood sexual abuse, which is even costlier. But we can’t go too into the financial cost, because the emotional cost is even higher.
After all this, there are some brave victims who stick with reporting and succeed in getting some sort of justice. But can you blame the ones who don’t? Can you understand why they live in a world where the criminal justice system protects the perpetrator and places an impossibly high burden on them to hold it together in the aftermath of trauma? I don’t want this to scare anyone away from reporting a rape. I did it, and despite how difficult it was, I don’t have regrets. I just want and need people to understand that rape instantly puts the victim at a disadvantage that is rarely ever righted. This is why I always support survivors who speak out. This is why legal protections like Title IX and rape shield laws are incredibly important for survivors. I support and choose to believe victims about the people who hurt them. And I will never join the overwhelmingly loud chorus of people who choose to blame the victim when they come forward, or refuse to understand why they didn’t do things differently. I hope you join me, and I hope that you start to think twice before believing an accused perpetrator before getting a chance to hear the victim’s side. Survivors are everywhere, with more stories than any of us could count, and they all deserve our support.