Note that this blog is somewhat honest and graphic and a trigger warning is advised for those whom discussions and descriptions of sexual assault affects.
Last week several politicians and others claimed that if Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s claim of sexual assault was in any way true, then she should have gone to the police 30 years ago. Twitter and social media immediately lit up with stories of why sexual assault survivors didn’t report. Let me be clear: this conversation is hard for me and seeing the thousands of tweets of assault and even attempted assault wore at my heart. I was under the weather and mostly off social media, but I couldn’t miss the barrage of people’s stories ranging from 50 years ago to a few days ago.
Women do not report for many reasons, and questioning their reasoning is further assaulting them. I’m going to attempt to cover some of the reasons in this blog, but it will not be a complete list and it cannot cover the many nuances and rationales for all women. I pray it is a good start to understanding the complexities of reporting sexual assault even after it immediately happens. I am only covering sexual assault not child abuse. Child abuse is an entirely different conversation and should be addressed as such. I have no experience or training besides mandatory reporting as a clergy and cannot speak to rationales or experiences of those victims.
As a survivor and as a pastor trained in pastoral care for survivors of sexual assault, I never, NEVER encourage or guilt a person into reporting. I ask if they want to report and file charges, and if they say, ‘No,’ I move on. Period. That person (most often a woman as 1 in 4 women reportedly have experienced sexual assault, although that number is probably more like 1 in 3 due to lack of reporting) has just had or is still living the effects of someone taking their choice and agency away in the most grotesque way possible. Encouraging or guilting a victim into reporting is NOT giving them their choice back. If they say, ‘Yes,’ I offer guidance and support, but if they say, ‘No,’ I let them choose not to report, without question or judgment. Why do I let them, besides letting them regain agency? Because they are the only person who has to live through the process of reporting. And I do mean live through it.
The average woman that chooses to report a sexual assault in the first 48 hours (it’s extremely unlikely to get an indictment after that window of time), sees six men before ever encountering a woman. Statistically speaking, most law enforcement officers and doctors are men, so this stands to reason. Have you ever considered what exactly is the crime scene of a sexual assault? It isn’t the place it occurred, it is the body that suffered the assault. Notice I said body and not person. It is a criminal case, which means it is committed against the state and not the person, that would be civil case. The victim is treated as a crime scene and not a person. The bruises are measured, photographs taken, the victim is questioned like a witness and not a victim, and samples are taken from a woman’s most intimate places after those places have been violated. Many rapists use a simple tool that renders much of a rape kit entirely ineffective, a condom. Rape kits are done to test for DNA, but because sexual assault so infrequently goes to trial and is so difficult to convict, most kits are never actually sent off to crime labs. Crime labs are backed up for years, and police and prosecutors focus on crimes they believe they can solve and for which they can gain convictions.
Secondly, the vast majority of sexual assault does not occur in dark alleys by strange men in masks like Law and Order: SVU leads you to believe. A close friend, acquaintance, or intimate partner most often commits it. This makes it doubly hard to prove lack of consent and the burden of proof is on the prosecution. Most victims that go to trial state that the trial itself is worse than the assault, as they are attacked by a team of lawyers and their character assassinated. Every decision from their attire to previous relationships are held against them, as if that has any bearing on being a victim or deserving of such an atrocity. Last week, a man was tried in Alaska for strangling a woman until she became unconscious, then masturbated on her, after offering the woman a ride. He was given mild probation and the judge said, “This is your one free pass.” FREE PASS?! When did sexual assault and strangulation get FREE PASSES??!! He was found guilty, but walked away a free man while the victim is further traumatized and basically told that her body or life wasn’t worth “ruining a good man.” A good man does not sexually assault someone. End of story. Someone can appear to be a good man but hide a dark side. Remember Bill Cosby? We now know that he was guilty years later.
Thirdly, even when convictions are handed down, they are rarely to the full extent of the law. Just think of the Stanford rapist. Enough said. This tells victims that there is no point in reporting when nothing will occur, even if they do manage to win their trial.
Fourthly, It’s dangerous. Many victims were threatened with bodily harm or the perpetrator’s friends threatened silence, such as witnesses or friends the perpetrator told (read: bragged) about the attack (this is not uncommon in college fraternities).
Lastly, and most importantly, public shaming. Sexual assault feels shameful to the victim. They feel violated and dirty and worry that it might somehow be their fault because it happened to their bodies. Something good and pure was taken from them and they are ashamed and fearful they will never get it back. Many perpetrators choose victims that are less reliable witnesses or less likely to be believed. The things that people have said about Ford are horrible and awful and she has had to move to protect her family after receiving thousands of death threats and internet trolls releasing her personal address and phone number. Public shaming takes an innocent victim and subjects them to public victimization and Ford is experiencing this horror on a national and global level.
Franklin Graham stated that the mistakes made by a seventeen-year-old shouldn’t be held against a 53-year-old. Um, sexual assault is not a minor crime. The depiction of her assault is assault in the 1st degree in most states and punishable for up to 25 years in prison. A seventeen-year-old in most violent crime lawsuits is tried as an adult,so he wasn’t “just a kid”. Drunk driving as a minor that results in bodily injury or death would follow you for your life. Making terroristic threats against your school would follow you for life. Grand Theft Auto would follow you for the rest of your life. Some things SHOULD follow you for life. This is the point of society holding people accountable. Societal norms have shifted and there is no longer a statute of limitations on sexual assault in many states. This is a good thing, as just a few weeks ago people in Pennsylvania came forward about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church decades later and they can still seek justice. One former female senator stated, “What hormonal seventeen-year-old boy hasn’t done something like this. It’s no big deal.” Um, no. This is never ok, and I think most of the seventeen-year olds in the world haven’t sexually assaulted a woman. Another female senator in the same interview said, “Really? This is what she is complaining about? There wasn’t even penetration. She needs to let it go.” Trauma haunts a person, and no one gets to decide what was traumatic to another person. Women are called liars, opportunists, sluts, whores, and attention-seekers trying to destroy a good man’s life, while their shattered life becomes public fodder.
People ask, “What if she is lying?” Statistics state that on the whole, women do not lie about this. Old data which was biased stated most accusations were false have since been disproven, especially as the definition of sexual assault has broadened and more clearly defined. I’m not saying it never happens, but it is extremely rare. The American Psychological Association claims that research shows only 2-7% of claims are false, whereas 40% of assaults are never reported. It’s more statically likely that a woman stays quiet, than a woman lies about sexual assault. Shouldn’t it be scarier to the world that a woman might be telling the truth, and a good man go unpunished, or worse become a Supreme Court judge, who would potentially rule on the Stanford rape case as appeals are already being attempted?
I didn’t report one of my attackers. I still haven’t a decade later because of the reasons listed above, but if he ever runs for office or any official position to lead or potentially victimize more people, I would break my silence. I wouldn’t undergo the public-shaming for justice for myself, but I would to protect others or my country. I think it says something very powerful that I don’t deem my own body alone worthy of the rigors of reporting, or worse trial.