To Speak or Not to Speak: The Politics of Reporting Sexual Assault from a Feminist Perspective
Different waves of feminism throughout the last century have each brought to light a different form of systemic misogyny. Women have slowly gained a voice, and with that, rights protected by law. With each success, though, came a fresh realization of just how far the world still has to go. The most recent wave, in the form of the Me Too movement, has revealed a world where women experience forms of sexual assault at an alarming prevelence. It has become clear how much rape has been normalized, and how the government systems play a role in that normalization. Modern feminists are pushing for changes, yet the world still seems largely resistant.
Feminism tells young women that they should work to dismantle the system, fight their oppressors, and call out assault; but without drastic changes to the judicial system it will remain virtually impossible for women to feel safe stepping up. People are told that reporting an assault is “the right thing to do”. The reality of reporting, however, is troublesome and damaging. In an ideal world, victims would step forward and be supported and protected. We do not live in an ideal world. It is not black and white, justice or no justice. The decision to speak or not to speak is complicated at best. The system that was supposedly built to serve and protect, actively creates a hostile environment for victims, and addressing this system is the first step to justice and a safer world for everyone.
A System of Misogyny
Sayad and Yarber, in their book Human sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America Eighth Edition, define assault as “... forced sexual contact that does not necessarily include penile-vaginal intercourse…” (2013, p. 572). This definition has evolved over the years to be more inclusive, but the system surrounding this legal definition has not grown to match. In a study to understand why victims don’t report to the police. Brooks-Hay notes, “Within public narratives, it is often assumed that “genuine” victims-survivors of serious sexual offenses will rightfully seek and access “justice” via the punitive measures afforded by criminal justice system” (2020, p. 191) They go on to explain why this choice is complicated, though. Even Sayad and Yarber acknowledge the complications in their advice to help someone who has been raped. Their advice includes items such as “Believe the person,” “Listen to the person,” and “Help the person explore their options” (2013, p. 585). Even they say one shouldn’t force a victim to go to the police.
From an early age the world tells women that assault is “no big deal”. Women become so desensitized that they often don’t go to the police because they don’t feel like the crime is severe enough (Bruce & Walsh, 2014). While women belong in a victim role, society simultaneously exonerates men. “R.W. Connell suggests that sexual violence is part of what it means to be a ‘real’ man in western society. Men are believed to be uncontrollably aggressive and sexual. Society therefore has a tendency to understand rape as a natural consequence of men’s uncontrollable sexual desires and natural tendency toward violence” (1995, as cited in Barber, 2016, p. 546). Barber, in her essay “Sex and Power”, explains that the system is built on power, and white males have the power. Because of this systemic misogyny, the judicial system was never designed to truly support victims.
A Broken System: Reasons for Not Reporting
There are many reasons assault goes unreported. “Societal attitudes about rape, potential inequities (e.g., economic, gender), and other contextual factors all may impact decisions to report” (Amstadter et al, 2011). People choose to report for reasons such as crime identification, severity, concern for future victims (prevention), and retribution; but factors such as fear, severity, and shock all play into a decision to not report (Bruce and Walsh, 2014). In addition, factors such as gender, sexuality, and race should be taken into account. “Today.... sexual minorities are increasingly the targets of violence” (Sayad and Yarber, 2013, p. 567). Coming forward as a marginalized person could open people up to further assault. Dr. Wood discusses this in his class “Concepts in Human Sexualtiy”. He explains that people who experience trauma have three fears (generally speaking): Not being believed, not being responded to, or that something else bad will happen (to themselves, family/friends, or the perpetrator) as a result of coming forward. This last fear is very real for people who experience marginalization because coming forward may mean opening themselves up to more violence, and the justice system places all the burden of managing this trauma solely on the victim (T. Wood, personal communication, October 10, 2020).
Sayad and Yarber discuss the psychological effect of rape. “The emotional changes undergone as a result of rape are collectively known as rape trauma syndrome” (2013, p. 584). Brooks and Burman conducted research on reporting from victims’ perspectives and found that these PTSD-like symptoms can be exacerbated by reporting. “Victims of rape need to deal with a range of emotional and practical issues in addition to criminal proceedings” (2017, p. 217). Victims addressed needing to process feelings from the assault itself as well as emotions associated with the justice system process. Bruce and Walsh in a study to determine the mental health variables in victims’ decisions to report, noted a similar problem. “...some literature has reviewed the ways in which the legal process associated with cases of sexual assault can cause significant stress for victims” (2014, para. 8).
The failure of the justice system to address the needs of victims is well documented (Brooks & Burman, 2017). These failures lead to a staggering number of unreported cases. A recent study on underreporting trends states, “Approximately one in seven U.S. women has been raped in their lifetimes” (Amstadter et al, 2011). Amstadter et al found that, “...fewer than one in six rapes are reported to the police….” and these findings are, “consistent with previous studies from the 1990s (Kilpatrick et al., 1992) and suggests that reporting of rape continues to be at historically low levels” (2011, p. 821).
Looking Toward the Future
While it is clear that reporting can have detrimental consequences, not reporting can be equally damaging as described in Bruce and Walsh’s study on the impact of mental health with reporting. “...declining to report to avoid a conversation about the event with law enforcement could make some victims ineligible for CVC benefits (NACVCB, 2012), and they may be unable to afford the cost of mental health care if they desire it later on” (2014, para. 10). The timeframe for reporting to receive any benefits or access to programs is short as well with many policies requiring a report to be filed within a few days. Bruce and Walsh explain that denying benefits to people is problematic when these victims are already under a high level of stress and reporting might be low on their minds. They question whether reporting should even be a requirement to receive benefits at all (2014).
So, what systems need to be in place to properly support victims and thus encourage them to step forward? To answer this, many researchers are looking at policy changes in Scotland. “It is within the context of these developments, and an appreciation of the limitations of the criminal justice response to rape, that the Support to Report (S2R) pilot advocacy service was launched in Scotland” (Brooks & Burman, 2017, p. 213). In addition to specialized police roles, Scotland has developed special advocacy support designed to walk a victim through the criminal process. This support consists of trained professionals designed to be non-judgemental and provide clarification as well as monitor the victim’s level of engagement during the judicial process. This program has had a positive effect on victims' mental health. “All interviewees, irrespective of the point within the reporting process that they accessed the service, described advocacy support as impacting positively on their ability to engage in, and continue with, the criminal justice process” (Brooks & Burman, 2017, p. 214).
Amstadter et al also called out the power of education. “First, education programs should be developed and implemented to inform the general public about blaming the perpetrator and address erroneous public perceptions of victims of rape. These programs may also have an impact on reducing the stigma associated with being a victim of rape, thereby reducing the concerns related to others finding out” (2011, p. 825). They caution that this education may not be readily available to people who choose not to report and so this education needs to be well placed and timed - ideally during adolescence - for it to be useful (2011).
To speak or not to speak? This decision is a complicated one. The judicial system is rooted in misogyny and there is no safety for victims who come forward. Often, it is easier for people to remain silent than deal with the adverse effects of the judicial system. People who come forward often walk away with more negative psychological effects than they started with; but the consequences for not reporting can be equally devastating. There is good news though. Right now is the perfect time to be reforming this system in the US. The recent racial justice movement has illuminated just how over-stretched our judicial system is. Re-imagining the police to be inclusive to all lived experiences is a perfect opportunity to take a long look at how we treat victims of sexual assault and what programs we make available to them (even if they don’t choose to press charges). Having a division particularly trained in trauma management could be more beneficial than a general police force. This would give America the opportunity to implement education and advocacy programs as well, and to expand upon ideas already being implemented in other countries. Re-distributing a police force can allow the US to look at it’s judicial system as a whole and make other necessary changes in the name of fulfilling its promise of “justice for all”. There is a lot of work to be done, but by seizing this opportunity, I believe the future can be brighter.
Amstadter, A. B., Kilpatrick, D. G., McCauley, J. L., Resnick, H. S., Ruggiero, K. J., & Wolitzky- Taylor, K. B. (2011). Is reporting of rape on the rise? A comparison of women with reported versus unreported rape experiences in the national women’s study-replication. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 26(4), 807–832. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260510365869
Barber, K. (2016). Sex and power. In L. N. Fisher & S. Seidman (Eds.) New sexuality studies third edition (pp. 544-548). Routledge.
Brooks-Hay, O. (2020). Doing the “right thing”? Understanding why rape victim-survivors report to the police. Feminist Criminology, 15(2), 174–195. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085119859079
Brooks, O., & Burman, M. (2017). Reporting rape: Victim perspectives on advocacy support in the criminal justice process. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 17(2), 209–225. https://doi.org/10.1177/1748895816667996
Bruce, S. E., & Walsh, R. M. (2014). Reporting decisions after sexual assault: The impact of mental health variables. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(6), 691– 699. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036592
Sayad, B. W., & Yarber, W. L. (2013). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America eighth edition. McGraw-Hill.